Reducing harm caused by alcohol


Alcohol sales and consumption in Scotland during the pandemic

Public Health Scotland today [Tuesday 16 February 2021] published findings from two studies commissioned to investigate the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic – and related restrictions – on alcohol consumption in Scotland during its first few months. These two studies together suggest that at a population level people were drinking at reduced levels in the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, when restrictions included the closure of licensed alcohol premises, compared to the same months in previous years. However, despite a drop in total alcohol sales some groups reported increases during this time.

Alison Douglas, chief executive of Alcohol Focus Scotland said, “Prior to COVID-19 we were already a nation of home-drinkers with almost three-quarters of all alcohol bought in Scotland sold in the off-trade. This data shows that, with on sales closed during the first lockdown, much - but not all - of the alcohol we would have consumed in bars and restaurants was replaced by off-sales purchases from shops. It is encouraging that in total we drank less but we know that for some of us our drinking has become more of a problem during the pandemic as we struggle with isolation and stress.  

“Alcohol Focus Scotland’s own polling showed around one third of drinkers reported cutting down or stopped drinking while around one third had increased. Worryingly, those that had increased tended to be those who were already drinking more heavily. Stress has been a key factor for many, with people using alcohol as a coping mechanism. Unfortunately drinking can disrupt our sleep and increase our levels of anxiety and over time this can lead to depression. If these patterns of drinking persist they can lead to more severe health problems such liver disease, stroke and a range of cancers including bowel and breast cancers.

“Alongside adequate service provision it is crucial that our national recovery effort builds on the good work we have started in addressing Scotland’s unhealthy relationship with alcohol. It’s time to review the minimum unit price for alcohol, given it’s been shown to have a positive impact on consumption, particularly amongst poorer, heavier drinkers who suffer the most harm. In addition, reducing how readily available alcohol is and how heavily it is marketed could help to improve the lives of thousands of Scots by preventing problems developing in the first place.”

One study used weekly alcohol sales data to estimate the impact on population level alcohol consumption in Scotland, and in England & Wales. The second study used self-reported data to assess how drinking behaviour changed, and how particular population sub-groups were affected, during the first three months of the pandemic.

Overall, there was a 6% reduction in total alcohol sales in Scotland, as increases in off-trade sales did not fully replace the loss of on-trade sales. Most self-reported alcohol consumption measures have also reduced accordingly, although statistically significant reductions could only be reported for England. There has been a notable shift to

  • later start times of drinking
  • Increased solitary drinking, impacting some groups more than others (including single adult households; households with three or more adults; and those in full-time education.)