Reducing harm caused by alcohol


Newly published figures reveal 40% drop in alcohol treatment in Scotland over 10 years

  • Access to specialist alcohol treatment has declined by 40% over the past 10 years
  • Even before the pandemic, the number of people accessing treatment had dropped by 30%
  • Alcohol deaths are at their highest level since 2008
  • Increased investment in services and recovery support - alongside renewal and uprating of minimum unit price and restricting alcohol marketing - are urgently needed to turn the tide of harm

New analysis by Alcohol Focus Scotland shows that access to specialist alcohol treatment dropped by 40% over the last 10 years.

And the charity has warned that if we don’t act now to prevent and treat alcohol problems, Scotland could be turning the clock back 30 years to when death rates soared to record levels.  In 2021, 1,245 people lost their lives to alcohol-specific causes, the highest number since 2008.

Early access to person-centred treatment is essential to help people avoid developing more severe problems or even losing their life to alcohol, so this latest research highlights the need for urgent investment in this vital area.

Laura Mahon, Deputy Chief Executive of Alcohol Focus Scotland, said: “The drop in the level of treatment in Scotland over the last ten years is shocking and deeply concerning. Alcohol harm has remained high in Scotland over this time period, so this is not a question of whether people’s need for support has reduced, but rather that they are finding it more difficult to access the support they need.

“This drop in treatment coincides with a period when budgets for Alcohol & Drug Partnerships were cut. At the time, many of us feared that those cuts would affect service provision and it now appears that is the case. The fact that this drop in support is only now coming to light is also of real concern. The Scottish Government urgently needs to invest in alcohol treatment – as they have in drug services – and to monitor provision to ensure these vital services are maintained.

“But we can’t treat our way out of the alcohol emergency – we must also prevent problems developing in the first place – which is why we also need to renew and uprate minimum unit price to at least 65p per unit, as well as restrict alcohol marketing.”

Alcohol Focus Scotland’s analysis reveals that the number of people commencing specialist alcohol treatment dropped from a peak of 32,556 in 2013/14 to 19,617 in 2021/22, representing a 40% decline across Scotland. The analysis is based on data published by the Scottish Government, in response to a Parliamentary question by Scottish Conservative MSP, Miles Briggs, drawn from a series of reports by Public Health Scotland on National Drug and Alcohol Treatment Waiting Times. The drop in service provision pre-dates any impact of the pandemic on service provision, as figures prior to this still show a 30% decline across Scotland.

The period of decline coincides with a period when funding to Alcohol and Drugs Partnerships, who are responsible for overseeing local alcohol services, was cut by 20% from £69.2 to £53.8 million.   

These concerning findings come only weeks after 36 organisations, including Alcohol Focus Scotland, called for an ‘emergency response’ to what the Scottish Government itself has recognised as the alcohol emergency. The group – involving clinicians, charities and local Alcohol and Drugs Partnerships – made a number of specific recommendations, including improving access to a range of recovery-oriented alcohol services, such as specialist services, counselling, residential and community-based rehabilitation provision, and peer-led and mutual aid options. The group also emphasised that treatment must be complemented with preventative measures such as the renewal and uprating of minimum unit price and restrictions on how alcohol is marketed.

Despite the positive effect of minimum unit pricing, which was recently found to have saved approximately 268 lives each year since it was introduced, Scotland has still seen a dramatic increase in alcohol deaths over the past few years. This significant rise in loss of life was likely caused by changing drinking habits during the pandemic, in particular among heavy drinkers, alongside reduced access to services. However, this new analysis shows that alcohol treatment was in poor shape even prior to the pandemic.

Dr Carey Lunan, GP and Chair of the Scottish Deep End Project, said “Alcohol related harms are at crisis level in Scotland. Each week 700 people are hospitalised and 24 die as a result of alcohol, and the numbers of people whose lives are dominated by alcohol-related suffering is even greater. That suffering is experienced most in our most deprived communities; those served by Deep End GPs. It is vitally important for people’s recovery that they receive support as early as possible to avert more chronic problems developing but there has been a significant reduction in the support available to people. It is essential that investment in specialist services is prioritised to ensure that they are supported earlier and to relieve future demand on our NHS. This must be accompanied by preventative action on low prices and aggressive marketing which encourage and normalise high levels of alcohol consumption.”


Wednesday 26 July 2023