Reducing harm caused by alcohol


Report on alcohol sales and harm in Scotland during the COVID-19 pandemic

Public Health Scotland (PHS) has published an analysis of the latest available data on alcohol sales and harms in Scotland during the COVID-19 pandemic. This provides a picture of how the pandemic and its related restrictions may have impacted on alcohol sales, alcohol-related hospital stays and alcohol-specific deaths.

Presenting data on alcohol sales up to 8 May 2021, and previously published data on hospital stays up to 31 March 2021 and deaths up to 31 December 2020, the report shows that while rates of hospital stay related to alcohol fell, rates of alcohol-specific death increased. This was driven by an increase in deaths in men and those aged 45 to 64 years, groups that experienced the highest rates of deaths caused by alcohol prior to the pandemic.

This is despite total alcohol sales (litres of pure alcohol per adult) being 9% lower in 2020 than the 2017-19 annual average, and 16% lower in 2021 (January–May) than the average for January–May 2017-19. While sales of alcohol through supermarkets and shops (off-trade) increased during the pandemic, sales through pubs, clubs and restaurants (on-trade) decreased substantially due to the restrictions imposed because of the pandemic. 

This, combined with other evidence of how alcohol consumption may have changed during the pandemic, suggests that drinking at hazardous and harmful levels may have increased for some groups who potentially experienced higher rates of mortality as a consequence.

Lucie Giles, Public Health Intelligence Principal at Public Health Scotland, said:

“The data show that the number of people accessing hospital with an alcohol-related diagnosis fell during the pandemic, particularly at times when restrictions were at their most stringent. We saw the greatest reductions amongst men and those aged 45 years and over and it was in these same groups that we saw increases in deaths caused by alcohol. This was despite average alcohol consumption for the population falling, a change driven by a reduction in sales of alcohol through pubs and clubs.

“Despite the reduction in sales overall the data indicate that population level consumption of alcohol was still above recommended levels. Between March 2020 and May 2021, 17 units (171 ml) of pure alcohol have been sold per adult each week on average, 16 (162 ml) of which have been from off-trade premises. This represents enough alcohol to put every adult in Scotland over the Chief Medical Officer’s low-risk weekly drinking guideline of 14 units.

“Taken together, the evidence points to increased drinking amongst some groups, coupled with a reduction in the number of people accessing hospital treatment and greater rates of death caused by alcohol. Tackling alcohol consumption and harms, particularly among high-risk groups, should be a critical objective of any COVID-19 recovery plans.”

In response to the report, Alison Douglas, chief executive of Alcohol Focus Scotland, said: 

“While it is positive that overall Scots drank less during the last two years, this needs to seen in the context of the devastating rise in deaths caused by alcohol during the same period. Drinking habits appear to have become polarised; some have cut down, while others – particularly heavier drinkers – have increased their drinking. In addition, it has been challenging for people to access the support they need, with reports of services being reduced or operating online for periods of time.

“Helping people to reduce how much they drink must remain a priority as part of Scotland’s recovery from COVID-19. This can be achieved both through the provision of accessible and recovery-oriented support for those with alcohol problems, combined with preventative approaches, such as increasing the minimum unit price to 65p per unit, introducing restrictions on alcohol marketing, and reducing the ready availability of alcohol.”