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Too early to cheer alcohol figures

Is the fall in the amount of alcohol sold per person due to a new attitude to drink, a seismic social shift?

That is what is needed - a change of collective attitude in the mould of the popularity slump which smoking has undergone, or the stigma attached to drink driving.

It seems unlikely that this is what we are seeing with alcohol, yet.

Yes, the lowering in drink sales in Scotland coincides with a raft of measures to tackle the social impact of booze and to persuade us all to moderate our intake.

But with the cost of living rising all the time, economic belt-tightening is a more likely cause of any national increase in abstention.

With food and fuel bills, transport costs and a host of other pressures on household budgets, the news today that the cost of raising a child has gone up by 4% is another reason why alcohol sales may be getting squeezed. In such a context it would be surprising if the amount we collectively spent on drink were not declining.

Abstention is hardly the right word, in any case. The fact that a steep decline in alcohol sold in pubs and clubs is mirrored by a sharp increase in off-sales for drinking at home is a clear indicator that people are changing the way they drink more markedly than the amount. Levels of harmful drinking among young women, and the medical consequences of that remain concerning.

None of this means a fall in consumption is unwelcome, of course. In fact, as health chiefs have pointed out, it is encouraging, but not big enough.

We still drink far too much in Scotland. The average intake of 21 units of alcohol per adult per week is a shocking level, perilously perched on the safe limit for men, and well above the 14-unit limit for women.

We are still buying 6% more alcohol than we were two decades go and one-fifth more per person than in England and Wales. So there is little reason for complacency.

Not only do we drink at too high a level, we know that the nature of that drinking is also frequently damaging, with binge drinking still far too common.

Meanwhile, attitudes to drinking to excess need to change, with less trivialisation, less jokey acceptance of hazardous drinking in peer groups and social settings.

NHS Health Scotland admits that affordability as a result of the economic climate has been a big factor in the decline in alcohol consumption.

This seems to help make the case for minimum pricing - as do the figures reported today which show that 50% of the alcohol sold in off-licences and supermarkets cost less than the Scottish Government's proposed 50p per unit minimum.

However, minimum pricing is not a panacea. Tackling the problem of cheap drink in supermarkets is only one part of a bigger picture.

Other methods can also influence spending decisions, according to health experts, from the ban on multi-buy promotions of drink to brief interventions by doctors with patients who are drinking at harmful or hazardous levels.

These may be having an impact, but more evidence is needed. Any relief at a change in attitudes will be short-lived should drink sales pick up as and when shoppers begin to feel more affluent again.

The numbers reached by health initiatives are impressive, but only time will tell whether bad habits return with better economic times.

Contextual targeting label: 
Food and drink

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