Tuesday 17 August 2021

Alcohol-related deaths rose sharply in Scotland last year

The alcohol mortality figures for Scotland were published today and 2020 saw a significant increase. This was expected because it is what we saw in England and Wales. In England and Wales, the death rate rose last year by 18% to 13 per 100,000 people. In Scotland, it rose by 16% to 21.5 per 100,000 people.  

Interestingly, in Scotland the increase was almost entirely due to more men dying of alcohol-specific causes whereas in England and Wales both sexes were affected more or less equally. 

People will probably argue for years about the exact mechanisms behind this. The bottom line is that more people drank themselves to death last year than in a normal year and this is probably due to fear, despair and boredom, partly caused by the pandemic itself and partly caused by the social isolation caused by stay-at-home orders and the closure of social venues. 

There is evidence that heavy drinkers consumed more alcohol under lockdown while lighter drinkers consumed less. There is also evidence that overall alcohol consumption declined under lockdown in England but stayed the same in Scotland. In neither country was there an increase in alcohol consumption, despite 'public health' dogma suggesting that an increase in consumption is a prerequisite for an increase in harm.

Due to pubs, clubs and restaurants being closed for much of the year, alcohol was less 'available' in 2020 than usual. It was less advertised in 2020 for the same reason. Whether it was less affordable is a moot point. On average, it was cheaper because alcohol in the on-trade is more expensive, but the pandemic did not make off-trade alcohol any cheaper than usual. 

In Scotland, off-trade alcohol is more expensive than in England thanks to minimum pricing, but this did not prevent Scotland having a similar spike in deaths as seen in the rest of Britain. 

The three factors temperance campaigners claim are the key drivers of alcohol harm - availability, affordability and advertising - either declined or stayed the same in 2020 and yet alcohol harm - as measured by deaths - rose sharply.

What changed were people's circumstances. 2020 was a horrific year characterised by stress, loneliness and tedium. It is no surprise that alcohol-related mortality rose. Drug-related deaths also rose, particularly in Scotland. The success or failure of minimum pricing cannot be judged by what happened in this exceptional year, but the similarity between the mortality spikes in Scotland and England, despite minimum pricing being in place for two years, shows that such policies are, at best, trivial in the context of an individual's personal circumstances. 

If you want to deal with the deaths of despair, start by preventing despair. Everything else is tinkering, and much of it creates its own problems.

PS. Inevitably, the Alcohol Health Alliance has responded to today's news by calling for advertising bans and higher alcohol taxes. 

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