Alcohol deaths in Scotland up during pandemic despite falling sales

Alcohol-related deaths in Scotland increased during the pandemic despite lower drinks sales, according to analysis by Public Health Scotland (PHS). While rates of alcohol-related hospital stays fell, the increase in deaths was driven by people aged 45-64, mostly men – ‘groups that experienced the highest rates of deaths caused by alcohol prior to the pandemic’.

Men aged 45-64 feature in the analysis

The analysis is based on data for alcohol sales up to May 2021, hospital stays to March 2021 and deaths to December 2020. The increase in deaths is despite sales for 2021 being almost 10 per cent lower than the 2017-19 average, and 16 per cent lower for the January-May period. Despite the overall fall in sales during the pandemic, population-level consumption was still above recommended levels, says PHS, with 17 units of pure alcohol per adult sold every week, representing enough to ‘put every adult in Scotland over the chief medical officer’s low-risk weekly drinking guideline’.

The findings echo previous studies for the UK as a whole which found that while some people cut their drinking during the pandemic, many who were already drinking at hazardous and harmful levels increased their consumption. Scotland’s rate of alcohol-specific deaths for 2020 was 22 per 100,000 population, says PHS, 8 per cent up on the average for 2017 to 2019 and ‘higher than any individual annual rate in the study period.’ Deaths rose by almost a fifth between 2019 and 2020 (DDN, September 2021, page 4), following a decline the previous year, prompting campaigners to call for the minimum unit price to be increased to 65p (

Lucie Giles: Tackling alcohol harms among high-risk groups should be a critical objective

‘The data show that the number of people accessing hospital with an alcohol-related diagnosis fell during the pandemic, particularly at times when restrictions were at their most stringent,’ said public health intelligence principal at Public Health Scotland, Lucie Giles. We saw the greatest reductions amongst men and those aged 45 years and over and it was in these same groups that we saw increases in deaths caused by alcohol. This was despite average alcohol consumption for the population falling, a change driven by a reduction in sales of alcohol through pubs and clubs.

‘Taken together, the evidence points to increased drinking amongst some groups, coupled with a reduction in the number of people accessing hospital treatment and greater rates of death caused by alcohol,’ she continued. ‘Tackling alcohol consumption and harms, particularly among high-risk groups, should be a critical objective of any COVID-19 recovery plans.’

Alcohol sales and harm in Scotland during the COVID-19 pandemic at – read it here

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