Reducing harm caused by alcohol

Availability and licensing

It's time we challenged how readily available alcohol is in Scotland.

Where we spend our time living, working and socialising affects the lifestyle choices we make. Alcohol is now available in many places we spend our leisure time, including cinemas and sports clubs and even places like petrol stations and pharmacies. With more than 16,700 licences in force in Scotland, there are around 10 times more places to buy alcohol than there are places to pick up a prescription.

Enough alcohol was sold last year in Scotland for every adult to exceed the weekly guideline by 44% every week of the year. Reducing the availability of alcohol is vital to reducing the harm it causes to individuals and society.

Is alcohol availability linked to harm?

Yes. The more alcohol that is available in an area, the more likely it is that the people living there will experience the negative consequences, from noise and litter to ill health and injury.

Research carried out in Scotland in 2014 found that alcohol-related deaths in Scottish neighbourhoods with the most alcohol outlets were more than double those in neighbourhoods with the fewest outlets - read more

How can we reduce alcohol availability?

The licensing system is the main tool we have to regulate the availability of alcohol, but it hasn't kept pace with changes in the way we drink and isn't empowered to actively reduce availability.

Alcohol Focus Scotland is calling for:

  • A commitment to reducing alcohol availability in the Scottish Government's upcoming alcohol strategy refresh
  • Restrictions on licensing hours for off-sales
  • Improvements to the existing licensing regime (see below)
  • New measures to reduce impulse purchasing such as separate alcohol check-outs
  • Bringing transport alcohol sales into the licensing system

Read our full recommendations in our latest report - Changing Scotland's relationship with alcohol: Recommendations for further action (pdf)

Licensing in Scotland

Although legally available and widely consumed, alcohol is a drug with toxic, intoxicating and addictive effects. Controlling its supply through licensing reduces the risk of harm to individuals, communities and society.

To limit the risk of harm, local licensing boards regulate who can sell alcohol, where it can be sold, the conditions of sale, the hours and days of sale, and the number of outlets permitted to sell alcohol. Board membership consists of local Councillors though it is seperate from the local authority itself.

Licensing boards have to develop a policy statement which sets out the approach they will take when considering applications for licences in their area. This includes how they will promote the 5 licensing objectives:

  • preventing crime and disorder
  • securing public safety
  • preventing public nuisance
  • protecting and improving public health
  • protecting children and young people from harm

As part of their policy statement, licensing boards also have to assess whether there is "overprovision" of licensed premises in their area. This assessment includes the number of premises, capacity of premises, type of premises and size of display areas, but not how much alcohol is actually sold.

If there is overprovision, this means there is a presumption against granting any new licences to sell alcohol in that area. Areas that have found overprovision to some extent include Edinburgh, Dundee and West Dunbartonshire.

Improving the licensing system

It has been eight years since the Licensing (Scotland) Act 2005 came fully into force, during which time considerable effort has been invested in trying to ensure that the licensing system delivers positive outcomes for communities. However, Scotland continues to have the highest level of alcohol consumption and harm in the UK. The evidence is that things are moving in the wrong direction, with the number of places licensed to sell alcohol increasing in each of the last six years.

There are a number of factors that may have impacted on the effectiveness of the licensing system. There have been rapid changes in alcohol sales and consumption, with around three quarters of alcohol now sold by shops and supermarkets and a growth in online sales. The law is also complex and can be inconsistently applied, with many people struggling to understand how licensing works and what role they can play.

Alcohol Focus Scotland is calling for Scottish Government action to improve the existing licensing system by:

  • Providing up to date national guidance to local licensing boards on the licensing objectives, overprovision and local licensing forums
  • Providing direction to local licensing boards by producing a national licensing policy
  • Supporting community involvement by improving information about licensing and alcohol availability and making it publically available

Licensing resources and training

Alcohol Focus Scotland has a range of tools designed to support engagement in the licensing process.

If you are a member of the public who is concerned about the impact of alcohol in your community and would like to get involved, our Community Toolkit (pdf) has been designed to help.

For professionals involved in the licensing system, we have designed a Licensing Resource Pack. The pack comprises 5 sections and each is available to view and print as a separate pdf document below.

Full version: Licensing Resource Pack

Section 1: Introduction to alcohol licensing in Scotland

Section 2: Using evidence to support policy and decision-making

Section 3: Statements of licensing policy

Section 4: Developing an effective overprovision policy

Section 5: Useful resources

We also offer a range of training courses for people in the licensed trade and for those involved in the regulation of licensing to meet the requirements of the Licensing (Scotland) Act 2005.