Reducing harm caused by alcohol


Truer picture of alcohol harm revealed

As we come to the end of Dry January, it’s sobering to read the latest assessment of just how badly alcohol is damaging our health.  The figure of over 100,000 years of life lost due to early death or living in poor health in a single year should make us all pause for thought.  I’m guessing that you, like me, know someone behind that statistic.  Someone whose life - and the lives of those around them - has been blighted, or cut short, because of alcohol.

Perhaps one of the most surprising findings of this research was that alcohol-related cancers are the biggest killers. More than 1 in 4 of the deaths are due to cancers of the bowel, breast, stomach, throat or mouth.  Most of us know the link between alcohol and liver disease and assume that it’s only people who are dependent on alcohol who are affected.  Only a small minority of us (around 10%) are aware of the cancer risk and even fewer of us realise that even low levels of drinking increase our risk of cancer.

The research also highlights the wide range of health impacts that alcohol can have, from falls, road traffic accidents, alcohol poisoning and mental illness to pneumonia, stroke and pancreatitis.  Some of those conditions may take years to affect us while others can occur after a single drinking session.

We often assume that young people are the problem and that those of us in middle age have less of an issue.  It’s true that young people are more likely to be involved in alcohol-related accidents.  But it’s also true that we 45-59 year olds are most likely to experience a heart condition, stroke, liver disease or cancer.  And it’s not just ‘alcoholics’ who suffer - we need to stop kidding ourselves that this is someone else’s problem.

Minimum unit pricing and alcohol labelling

So, what will solve our problem?  Minimum unit pricing will save lives and is a strong start. But we also need to ensure that people have the information they need to make decisions about their drinking and their health.  The government should require alcohol producers to label alcohol drinks clearly with health warnings and the Chief Medical Officers’ low risk guidelines.  It is simply unacceptable that there is more consumer information on a pint of milk than on a bottle of wine.

Alcohol marketing

And we need to protect children and young people from exposure to high levels of attractive alcohol marketing, which evidence shows increases the likelihood they will start drinking and drink more.  The Scottish Government is consulting on restricting advertising of high fat, salt and sugar foods; why not do the same for alcohol?

We know we have an alcohol problem, a big problem.  We know what will make a difference.  What’s stopping us?


Alison Douglas, Chief Executive, Alcohol Focus Scotland