Why alcohol is a problem for the UK, not just Scotland

In his second piece of the week, JOHN RUDDY shows that alcohol consumption is a UK-wide problem and that minimum unit pricing may not be the most effective counter-weight.


No one can deny that alcohol is one of the most serious social problems facing us at the moment. In 2010, there were just over 1300 alcohol related deaths in Scotland.  In the same year, there were over 7,100 in England and Wales. However, this is not a problem which is confined to Scotland, and we shouldn’t be thinking in terms of Scotland-only solutions.

Since 1991, deaths caused by alcohol have increased in Scotland by 110% – but over the same time they have increased by 111% in England & Wales. Clearly there is something other than the ‘Buckfast Culture’ going on here. If you compare the figures north and south of the border since 1979, you actually see two very different pictures – and its one which suggests the causes are different.



As you can see from the graph, deaths have been increasing in England & Wales pretty much consistently since the early 1980s. There was a slight pause from 1988 – 93, and since 2008. However, the Scottish figures are pretty static all through the 1980s, and not really starting their rise until 1994. This increase stalled around 2002/3 and if anything has fallen since then slightly.

So what can we infer from this? Well, it seems that price and affordability are a big determinant for people in England & Wales, but there seems to be no such correlation in Scotland. When there is a recession in the UK, deaths fall (or stop rising) in England, but the recession of the early 1980’s had no effect in Scotland and recent falls north of the Border began well before the current financial problems. The fact that these deaths are concentrated in areas of high deprivation – where by definition people have less money to start with – indicates that the cost of alcohol does not prevent consumption as much as might be assumed.

Looking at this evidence, I would say while increasing the price of alcohol will have an effect in England, it wont have as much of a benefit here in Scotland. With the legal problems associated with minimum pricing, I would expect the UK Government to look at increasing duty levels to increase general price levels – indeed this is the widely accepted explanation for the fall from 1979 to 1983 when the Thatcher government increased duty levels substantially.  This would make the Scottish Government’s minimum pricing legislation moot, although I would expect the SNP to kick up a fuss about increasing the price of Scotch Whisky.

But if affordability has limited effect in Scotland, what can we do here to reduce the tragedy affecting the country. Well, since 1999 there have been a number of initiatives designed to educate people about the effect of alcohol. This combined with the abilility of local authorities to restrict the consumption of alcohol in open spaces seems to have had an effect. However, we need to step this up considerably if we are to bring down the number of deaths.

Just as we have programmes designed to wean people off smoking tobacco, we must have similar programmes to tackle alcohol addiction. High profile campaigns to get folk to reduce their consumption, and if need be to seek help for addiction will lower deaths. It is this that the Scottish Government should be concentrating on, and then Scotland will see a healthier relationship with alcohol.

Originally from Devon, John Ruddy now lives in Angus. He was an agent for Scottish Labour at the Holyrood election and is a Unison shop steward. Follow John on Twitter at @jruddy99

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35 thoughts on “Why alcohol is a problem for the UK, not just Scotland

  1. An interesting take and I do not think that any sensible person would argue that Alcohol consumption is a major problem for many countries. Likewise I do not believe that anyone is suggesting that Minimum pricing is a cure all, but it must be part of the solution. A broad front approach is required taking in education and not just in schools, changing societal tolerance to drunkenness is a crucial matter.
    The graph is interesting, am I correct in assuming it is not corrected for population and is just a gross total? If this is the case then the graph is in danger of being misleading, in 2010 Scotland had about 1200 alcohol related deaths England with 10 times the population has about 7200, in other words England despite the large increase has about half the Alcohol related deaths of Scotland (prorata) Another explanation for the significant growth in England maybe to do with changes to recording are we even sure we can compare Scotland and England, is the data comparable?
    Leaving all this aside I think it is fair to say that our relationship with alcohol is an unhealthy one, we surely must do all we can to try to change this. To my mind price does effect consumption, your article demonstrates an example from the Thatcher period, and there is more than sufficient evidence to support this. The best way to do so is surely through taxation, I do think that Westminster missed trick on this, to on the one hand simplify the taxation system on drink to one where only Alcoholic content is the measure, but also to reverse the current trend for stronger and stronger drinks by actually creating a market for weaker drinks.

    1. Its only misleading if you thought the population of England & Wales was the same as Scotland.

      Even if it were on a per-thousand – head of population basis, the SHAPE of the graphs would be the same. Ie that it was relatively stable during the 1980s in Scotland, when it was increasing dramatically in England. And that it had stabilised (and dropped) in Scotland after about 2003, while it continued to climb in England until the recession.

    2. Soosider, I might be wrong (and the graph doesn’t show) but are deaths from alcohol (etc) not usually per 100,000? If they are just absolute figures then yes they would be slightly misleading.

      Saying that though, the trends do show a larger increase in consumption in E+W than in Scotland.

      You are correct that Minimum Unit Pricing is not a cure all and that measures to increase costs (and drive down consumption) are a key part of the solution, however I think what John is saying here is that this is clearly not a Scotland only problem that required a Scotland only solution.

      I have been saying for a while that there should be a co-ordinated effort across the UK to tackle this problem and doing so through taxation would be sensible. This is an issue that should transcend small-minded politics.

      I also think this is an opportunity missed by Westminster to take this issue on, but it is also a missed opportunity for the SNP to use devolution properly. Just because we have the power to do ‘something’ to tackle this problem doesn’t mean it is the best method of impacting on alcohol abuse. I think the SNP should have been working to get the other devolved nations and Westminster to come together and get a strategy rolled out across the UK.

      From a nationalists’ point of view, would this not have been good PR to show that the SNP are reasonable and look out for the best interests of the people? Maybe they haven’t followed this line because working with Westminster would undermine their argument and would prove that devolution can work to everyone’s benefit?

  2. Cheap alcohol in Westminster seems to cause problems for the partakers so price is definitely a start to curb the loutish behaviour.

  3. Strange. John has effectively argued that Though alcohol abuse is a problem across the UK, the causes may be different in Scotland from the rest of the UK.

    Seems to me that the logical approach would be for each country to take appropriate measures to tackle its own problem.

    1. Yes, and if you read the article you would see that price has less of an effect in Scotland than it does in England & Wales, where deaths have dropped when prices have increased (or affordability dropped).

      Since these pricing issues would be the same north and south, we would expect the graphs to shadow each other. That they dont suggests that Scottish drinkers are not drinking more because its cheap (or at least to the same extent as folk down south).

      1. In that case, why the misleading heading to this article?

        The article heading implies that a UK-wide solution is required rather than a Scotland wide solution.

  4. Alcohol is probably NOT the best subject for labour at the moment.

    Perhaps there is something more important to discuss? like…..Independence?

  5. John,

    Before the fun starts, can I just say that your article is quite enlightening on the issues of alcohol abuse. I was unaware of the significant rise in England and Wales.

    I’d have thought, from a consumers point of view, it matters not a jot whether the tax is down to the SNP’s minimum pricing approach or the Treasury raising duty. Either method simply makes the price at the counter higher, no?

    Your comments about education are well made.

    1. yes, thats true. The reason I personally would prefer duty rises is so that any additional money raised would come to the taxpayer, and help fund the health and education initiatives needed, in much the same way Tobacco duties do.

  6. I suspect – though I may be wrong – that the culprit for the huge increase in deaths in England & Wales is cultural. While it’s true that we’ve always had a bit of a problem with binge drinking, it was mainly confined to the male section of the population (Well, in the last century, at least). The sudden climb in the number of deaths MAY be down to the number of women who now binge drink increasing.

    I think a chart breaking alcohol related deaths down by gender would be most informative on this point.

    I am guessing, but it seems like a reasonable guess.

    Whether that is remotely relevant to Scotland, I cannot say. It may help to explain the difference, though.

    1. GROS has figures breaking them down by sex and by council area. Its interesting to note that while during the “stable years” of the 80s it was predominately a male problem, it was also a west of scotland problem – 30% of the deaths occurred in Glasgow. That figure is now 15%, and overall the number of deaths in Glasgow has barely risen at all, while elsewhere they have climbed.

      Perhaps the health authorities were doing something different there which could be replicated elsewhere?

      1. Thanks, John 🙂

        That would seem to confirm my guess that a gender-based cultural change is largely responsible for the problem in England & Wales.

        Interesting that the numbers have evened out for Scotland – and that an imbalance existed in the first place. Sadly, I do not know enough to make any informed guess as to why that might be. Your own theory has to be worth looking at, though, IMO…

  7. John, few would deny that better use of duty tariffs is the best way to control alcohol prices with the view to reducing consumption of cheap alcohol. However, the problem here is that the Scottish Parliament does not have the power to levy duty against alcohol. Call-Me-Dave has consistency said that he has no interest in using duty tariffs in this way. So we are at an impasse, with minimum pricing the best of a bad lot in terms of a way forward.

    Of course, there is another solution….

    1. I hoped that people would see that the stats show that price is less of a determinant for Scots than it is for those living south of the border.

      Price – or rather affordability – seems to have a much more marked effect south of the border. The causes for the change in direction for deaths in Scotland do not appear related to price.

      It wouldnt surprise me for the chancellor to increase alcohol duties above inflation on “health grounds” to get the extra revenue he desperately needs, regardless of what has been previously said.

    2. What’s that then? Using Devolution to it’s full potential rather than approaching solutions to problems in such a parochial way?

      The SNP will fight as hard as they can to convince people to support separation – why can’t they attack all problems with the same intensity?

      My own feeling is that the SNP have been stoking up ‘irreconcilable differences’ between us and rUK so this wouldn’t fit with their agenda. Working constructively with Westminster would undermine their argument that we can’t achieve anything as part of the UK. If the SNP really do have the best interests of the people at heart they would pursue every avenue available to them. It’s good enough for them with the Scotland Bill but not with this?

      1. Wait a minute, isn’t it,Westminster that is now wanting to use minimum pricing as a tool against alcohol abuse, the same as the Scottish government has proposed both now and at the last paraliment. You know the one labour voted against both times.

    1. Both ONS (who provided the figures for England & wales) and GROS (who did the same for Scotland) use the same definition, although there was a slight change in 2000 and 2001 respectively.

      The numbers are purely those who died of diseases which are classed under the International Classification of Diseases as alcohol-related (ie cirrhosis of the liver etc). Obvious it doesnt include deaths due to accidents caused by having drunk too much, but it is probably a better indication of the long term problem.

  8. Well alcohol seems to be a big problem for Scottish Labour politicians at Westminster – so in that sense it is a UK problem, but only for Labour. Perhaps as a counter measure the Westminster authorities should consider controlling the intake of caffeine at parliament.

  9. Misleading graph. As every health professional knows the y-axis should be deaths-per-thousand-of-population-under-study to give any meaningful insight into making national comparisons. What you have done is known in the statistical business as “cherry-picking”.

    1. These were the easiest figures I had to hand. However, the figures per thousand of population show a similar rise at the same times.

      Its only misleading if you thought Scotland had the same population as England & Wales. If the figures were on a per-thousand head of population basis, then the shape of the graph would have been the same, but Scotland’s line would have been above England & wales.

      1. “Scotland’s line would have been above England & wales.”

        …………… and that implies?

  10. I wonder if a minimum unit alcohol price would work in subsidised bars?

    That and a tight screening of expense claims?

  11. The Governments of both the UK and Scotland must address the root cause of why so many people feel the best way to resolve whatever their life’s issues are by abusing alcohol.

    If you go to other European countries where Duty is much lower than in the UK they do not have the same issues with binge drinking and anti-social behaviour. Price is one lever which can be pulled, but the elasticity of demand on alcohol is not the same as crisps or cakes.

    The minimum price legislation is one of the most flawed pieces of law making ever. It does nothing to address why people choose to abuse alcohol; puts the extra revenue created into the hands of the retailer, not the Government; does not tackle any of the awful scenes on the UK’s City streets at 3am; and penalises lower wage drinkers who will see the price of a 70cl bottle of Brandy (for example) rise from around £9 now to £12.60 (using 50p per unit at 36% abv).

    The Labour Party and others who opposed this Bill the first time were correct to do so, my concern is that they have failed to provide an alternative.

  12. If you look properly at the figures, John, you will notice that our morbidity is close to double that of Englands. We have had a heavy drinking culture for a lot longer though they are now catching up. Its really too late to catch people when they are alcoholics, a lot of damage will already have been done and not just to themselves. Better to curd drinking as early as possible although youngsters are going to go through that faze come what may. Obviously Westminster has powers that Hollyrood does not ( thats one of the reasons for more powers or independence ) so the Scottish Government has to play the cards it has been dealt. Thats no excuse for Labours utter cynicism on this issue, it was obvious that the Britnat Combine’s opposition to pricing legislation was political and not legislative.

  13. A timely post John. Has no comment on Eric Joyce been made. No comment that Miliaband suspended him – isn’t JOhan Lamont in charge of all Labour politicians in Scotland. What has happened to the Labour party I supported for 38 years?

  14. What I infer from the graph is that alcohol related deaths in Scotland rose for almost 20 years, with the rate of increase being the same under both Tory and Labour governments, but began to decline as soon as the SNP took over in Holyrood.

    Anyone else care to have a go at inference?

    If this site is intended to produce ideat which will make Scottish Labour more relevant, do you really think asking Westminster to increase the price of malt whisky is a step forward?

    You even sneeringly suggest that the SG might take a negative view of this, as if they should instead embrace the consequent lowering of export and domestic sales. I really don’t think you’ve got the point yet.

    1. I wasnt aware that the SNP revisionist view of history had them take power in 2003, when the number of deaths in Scotland stabilised and then started to decline. I always thought they took power in 2007 when the decline was already underway?

      I am not trying to make party political points here, rather trying to enlighten and widen the debate. But clearly things that were done at the start of the decade – and continued and strengthened by the current administration – have had an effect here. We should identify what they were, and continue with them. Put more money into them, etc.

      As for sneering at the Scottish Government, perhaps you could point me in the direction of remarks from them welcoming increases in duty? Or would you rather I pointed you at remarks by them complaining about duty increases effecting the Whisky industry?

    2. The SNP came to power in 2003?? I didn’t realise the all powerful AS owned a Delorean!

      So you want all alcoholic drinks to be subjected to increased prices with the exception of whisky? Do people who over-consume alcohol not do so with whisky?

      Why do the SNP come up with an idea and then close their minds to all others?

      1. Is it just the way the graph is shown or does it show that the figures for 2006 are higher than those for 2002. How’s that for revisionist history?

  15. What I dont get, is all of the professional services that have to deal with the effects of alcohol abuse, (medical, police, social services) support minimum pricing, but labour disregards these professionals advice and knowledge. Why ???

    Also everyone knows that minimum pricing is just a part of the solution to our countrys alcohol abuse problems, so surely this should be in everybodys interest to implement regardless of your politcal party!!!

    1. You mean the same way the SNP disregarded the groups/associations/charities who deal with the effects of sectarian/racial prejudices?

      Labour have said that this on its own won’t be enough and have called on the SNP to open up the Bill to provide greater scope for the opposition to introduce amendments that will improve the effectiveness of it.

      Why won’t the SNP do that? If something was put forward they didn’t like they could always vote against it? Why close down the debate?

      1. Excuse me GERARD, didn’t the government hold back for six months on the sectarian bill to allow other parties to bring forward amendments, and the labour party did not put one amendment forward ???

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