Scottish alcohol consumption falls to lowest level ever

Scotland’s population-level alcohol consumption has fallen to its lowest level since records began in 1994, according to Public Health Scotland.

Alcohol Focus Scotland, Alison Douglas
‘This is a good indication that minimum unit pricing is having the intended effect,’ Chief Executive of Alcohol Focus Scotland, Alison Douglas.

Based on retail sales figures, last year saw 9.4 litres of pure alcohol sold per adult, says the MESAS (Monitoring and Evaluating Scotland’s Alcohol Strategy) report 2021. However this still equates to 18 units per adult each week, the agency states, exceeding the government’s low-risk drinking guidelines by four units. 

The average price per unit of alcohol sold in off-licences and supermarkets rose by 1p to 63p between 2019 and 2020, compared to 59p in England and Wales. More than two thirds of the alcohol sold in Scotland was between 50p and 64.9p per unit, compared to 32p before the introduction of minimum unit pricing (MUP) in 2018. The number of people exceeding the 14-unit guidelines has also fallen by 10 per cent to 24 per cent between 2003 and 2019, with those in the lowest income brackets likely to consume the most. 

Alcohol is still a leading cause of illness and early death in Scotland, said Public Health Scotland, with ‘significant inequalities’ in both levels of consumption and associated harms. More than 1,000 people died of causes ‘wholly attributable’ to alcohol in 2019, with the death rates far higher in the country’s most deprived areas. Despite the price difference since the introduction of MUP, Scots still bought 6 per cent more alcohol per adult than people in England and Wales, the report states, while alcohol sold in the UK overall remains 73 per cent more affordable than it was in 1987. 

‘Today’s MESAS report shows population-level alcohol consumption in Scotland has fallen for the third consecutive year, with the reduction from 9.9 litres per adult in 2019 to 9.4 litres per adult in 2020 representing the largest year-on-year decrease in Scotland in the time series available,’ said Public Health Scotland’s public health intelligence adviser, Dr Elizabeth Richardson. However, it was likely that the closure of licensed premises during lockdown periods had played a part in the lower levels of consumption, she acknowledged. In 2020, 90 per cent of all alcohol sold in Scotland was via off-trade premises, compared to 73 per cent the previous year. 

‘An average of 20 people per week die as a result of their alcohol consumption, and whilst this latest figure represents the lowest rate since 2012, again it is those in the most-deprived areas that are more likely to be hospitalised or die because of an alcohol-related harm,’ she said. ‘Like all harm caused by alcohol, this is preventable.’ 

‘We’re really pleased to see that as a nation we are drinking less for the third year running and that alcohol consumption is at a 25-year low – this is a good indication that minimum unit pricing is having the intended effect,’ added chief executive of Alcohol Focus Scotland, Alison Douglas. ‘Although the restrictions on pubs and restaurants for much of 2020 will have affected consumption across the UK, it is notable that the reduction in alcohol purchases in Scotland is greater than in England and Wales. But given nearly a quarter of Scots are still regularly drinking over the chief medical officers’ low-risk drinking guidelines, we can’t afford to take our eye off the ball where preventing alcohol harm is concerned.’

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