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Deadly risks in drinking culture

Scotland still has a long way to go in solving its problem with alcohol, but there have been some encouraging signs of improvement in recent years.

The amount Scots drink has been falling since at least 2010 and the Scottish Government has also been nudging us in the right direction with its ban on bulk-buy deals and its proposal for minimum pricing. Amid the often grim statistics on alcohol-related crime, these are signs of hope.

However, there remains a deeply worrying problem at the heart of Scots' relationship with alcohol that is worsening. Forty years ago, it was socially unacceptable for women to drink heavily and alcoholism was largely a male problem. But the generation of women who were born in the 1970s and became teenagers in the late 1980s and 1990s is entirely different. Thanks partly to changes in drinking patterns (in particular, the rise in popularity of wine) but also some profound cultural changes, many women no longer feel restrained in their drinking. They can down just as much as men; indeed, for some it is a badge of honour.

The long-term consequences of this are starting to become clear. Research conducted in Glasgow, Liverpool and Manchester has revealed a worrying increase in alcohol-related deaths among young women. This problem has been sign posted for some time, with a rise in the number people dying of liver cirrhosis first spotted in 2001, but it is now gathering pace.

It is women who appear to be suffering most and there are some straightforward reasons for this. The first is that women are unable to process as much alcohol than men. The daily alcohol limit for men is three to four units but for women it is two to three with at least two to three days off a week. There is considerable denial about this fact among some women, particularly middle-class woman who open a bottle of wine at night to de-stress. It is this kind of drinking, just as much as drinking in pubs and on the street, that is an important part of the problem.

Women cannot change this trend unsupported, however – the drinks industry must shoulder some of the blame and play a part in the solution. One problem has been the spread of the mega-glass of wine that lulls drinkers into thinking they're "just having the one"; the other is the fact the alcohol content of wine has been increasing for years.

The Scottish Government has, quite rightly, been forcing the industry's hand in some areas and the minimum pricing proposals are a welcome contribution. But with 38% of women regularly exceeding the sensible drinking guidelines, clamping down on cheap alcohol in supermarkets is only part of the solution. Perhaps the industry could look at producing and promoting wine with a much lower-alcohol content.

The Scottish Government should go further. There have been some excellent campaigns – most recently Drop a Glass Size – but on smoking, for example, Scotland only saw a significant change in habits when the campaigns became more serious and graphic. The same needs to happen with drinking and, with many teenagers starting well before their 16th birthday, these campaigns would have to go into schools and target young children.

None of this will change Scotland's relationship with alcohol in the short term, but such initiatives may help prevent more young women dying from alcohol-related conditions. In the longer term, what will also help is a change to the informal culture that still exists around alcohol in Scotland. It still sees heavy drinking as something to laugh off or even celebrate. All of us contribute to that attitude; all of us need to change it.

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Food and drink

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