Reducing harm caused by alcohol

Availability and licensing

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

Alcohol is becoming ever more widely available, and from a greater variety of places. It can now be bought in venues like cinemas and sports clubs, and even petrol stations and hairdressers. This might make it seem like alcohol is just an everyday product but it’s not.  We need to think about the availability of alcohol in the context of it being a powerful drug with the potential for harm. 

In Scotland, there are more than 16,600 places to buy alcohol - enough was sold last year for every adult to exceed the weekly guideline by 44% every week of the year.  With alcohol claiming 24 lives each week, reducing the availability of alcohol is vital to reducing the harm it causes to individuals and society.

How is alcohol availability linked to harm?

The easier it is to get hold of alcohol, the more people will drink, and the more harm we will experience

Research in Scotland has found that, across the whole of the country, neighbourhoods with the highest numbers of places to buy alcohol have much higher rates of alcohol-related health harm and crime.  In fact, alcohol-related death rates in neighbourhoods with the most alcohol outlets are double those in neighbourhoods with the least and crime rates four times higher. Read more

How can alcohol availability be controlled?

Controlling the supply of alcohol is something that public authorities have done for centuries to reduce the risk of harm from alcohol.  Alcohol licensing is the system for granting permission for the sale of alcohol in Scotland, and is the main tool we have for regulating the availability of alcohol (see below). 

How does alcohol licensing work?

Licensing works to prevent and reduce alcohol problems in two main ways: It carefully controls the overall availability of alcohol through the number, type and opening hours of licensed premises, and it regulates the way individual premises do business. There are five licensing objectives, set out in law, that underpin the licensing system in Scotland:

  • Preventing crime and disorder
  • Securing public safety
  • Preventing public nuisance
  • Protecting and improving public health
  • Protecting children and young people from harm

Licensing boards decide on all applications for licences to sell alcohol in their area, and we are all affected by the decisions they make. For example, they decide whether a new supermarket or pub should get a licence, and whether opening hours should be extended.

Licensing boards have to develop a policy statement to set out the approach they will take when considering applications for licences in their area.  They also have to decide whether there is any "overprovision" of licensed premises in their area.  If they decide that there is overprovision, it creates a presumption against granting any new licences to sell alcohol in that area.

Boards across Scotland have recently developed their licensing policies - read more

Is licensing working as it should?

Although there has been some progress, the evidence is that things are moving in the wrong direction, with the number of places licensed to sell alcohol continuing to grow. There are a number of things that may have impacted on the effectiveness of the licensing system. They way that people drink has changed, with around three quarters of alcohol now being sold by shops to drink at home. 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 therefore calling for Scottish Government action to improve the 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

You can read our full set of recommendations for improvements to licensing in our report: Taking Stock

How can communities get involved in licensing?

There are a number of ways that community members can have a say in licensing, for example: 

  • Getting involved with the local licensing forum:  Licensing forums monitor licensing in their local area and can offer advice to the licensing board. Licensing forums are made up of different people with an interest in licensing, including community members.
  • Responding to alcohol licensing consultations: Each licensing board has to develop a policy setting out how it will carry out its work, and must consult with the local community when doing this. In fact, boards are developing their policies this year, so it is a great time to get involved - read more.
  • Commenting on applications: When a business is applying for an alcohol licence, anyone can object or comment on the application.  This is a great way for people to have a say on decisions that might affect them.

You can find more ways to get involved in the Alcohol Focus Scotland Community Toolkit 

What else could help to tackle alcohol availability?

Although licensing boards can prevent new places from being able to sell alcohol in their area (effectively capping the number), they can’t normally withdraw permission to sell alcohol from the places that already have it. Alcohol Focus Scotland is therefore calling for a commitment to reduce alcohol availability to be included in the Scottish Government's upcoming alcohol strategy refresh.  This must look beyond just licensing to find other, new, ways of tackling the overprovision of alcohol.      

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

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.