THE death toll from alcohol in Scotland has returned to levels last seen over a decade ago amid calls to treat the tragedy as a "public health emergency" on a par with the drugs crisis.

The latest annual report by National Records of Scotland show that there were 1,245 alcohol-specific deaths in Scotland in 2021, the highest number since 2008 and an increase of 55 compared to 2020.

It is the second year in a row that the death toll has increased, following a sharp decrease in 2019 - when there were 1,020 deaths - which had been attributed to the impact of minimum pricing.

HeraldScotland: Source: National Records of ScotlandSource: National Records of Scotland

The pandemic was previously blamed for "polarising" drinking habits, and leading problem drinkers to consume more at home during lockdowns.

The NRS report also shows that the alcohol-specific death rate, adjusted to take account of the changing age profile of the population, is now the highest since 2010 with 22.3 deaths per 100,000 people in Scotland.

It compares to a rate of 13 alcohol deaths per 100,000 in England in 2020, the most recent year for which data is available.

Men accounted for two thirds of the alcohol deaths in Scotland in 2021, with an average age of 58.7 for females and 59.7 for males.

ANALYSIS: Has minimum unit pricing failed - or been derailed by Covid?

Deaths rates were highest in the Greater Glasgow and Clyde and Lanarkshire health board areas, and more than five times higher in the most deprived areas.

Julie Ramsay, Vital Events Statistician at NRS, said: “Health inequalities are a feature of alcohol-specific deaths. Deaths attributed to alcohol were 5.6 times as likely in the most deprived areas of Scotland compared to the least deprived areas.

"This is more than the deprivation gap for all causes of death, which is 1.9. Two thirds of those who died last year were male.”

HeraldScotland: The death rate is around five times higher for people in the most deprived parts of Scotland, but this has narrowed from nearly eight-fold higher in 2016The death rate is around five times higher for people in the most deprived parts of Scotland, but this has narrowed from nearly eight-fold higher in 2016

Elinor Jayne, Director of Scottish Health Action on Alcohol Problems (SHAAP), said: "This is the second year in a row that the number of people dying directly because of alcohol has increased, and the impact that the pandemic has had on drinking patterns is now a real worry.

"And it’s a stark reminder that if you live in one of our most disadvantaged communities, you are much more likely to die as a result of alcohol than someone in one of Scotland’s more wealthy communities.”

Dr Alastair MacGilchrist, chair of SHAAP, said the figures were "disappointing but not surprising".

He added: "During lockdown, our drinking habits changed, with light drinkers drinking less but heavy drinkers drinking more and recent studies have highlighted the major negative impact this change of drinking patterns could have in the long term, resulting in many more people having an illness resulting from alcohol and many more people dying as a direct result of alcohol. The continuing high death toll revealed in today’s figures suggests that these grim predictions may come true unless urgent action is taken."

READ MORE: Heaviest drinking males consumed more after minimum pricing

Dr MacGilchrist called on the Scottish Government to increase funding and resources for alcohol services, and to crack down on alcohol promotion.

He said: “In addition to targeting the pricing of alcohol, the Scottish Government must address the wider availability and marketing of alcohol, through measures such as restricting alcohol sponsorship of sport, in order to tackle the inescapable exposure to alcohol experienced by children and other vulnerable groups, such as people in recovery.”

HeraldScotland: Source: National Records of ScotlandSource: National Records of Scotland

Campaigners have called for minimum unit pricing for alcohol to be increased from the current threshold of 50 pence, introduced in May 2018, to 65 pence per unit.

Alison Douglas, chief executive of Alcohol Focus Scotland, said: “Minimum unit price has delivered a sustained decrease in the amount we are drinking and there are some early signs this is translating into health benefits.

"But the price is set too low. To counter the effects of inflation since it was set in 2012, and optimise the impact, we need to increase the minimum unit price to at least 65p."

Ms Douglas measure were also needed to "address how heavily alcohol is marketed and restrict how available it is in our communities", adding: “The Scottish Government has recognised alcohol harm as a public health emergency alongside drugs, but we have not yet seen an emergency response on the same scale; they must act now."

READ MORE: Success or failure of minimum unit pricing is not black or white 

Shadow Health Secretary Dr Sandesh Gulhane urged ministers to finally back the Scottish Conservatives’ landmark Right to Recovery Bill, which would give everyone a legal right to receive treatment for their addiction - including in residential rehab facilities.

Dr Gulhane added: “As with the drug-deaths epidemic, the crisis has only got worse on Nicola Sturgeon’s watch – and it’s those from our most deprived areas who are suffering the most.

“Again, the SNP Government have been found wanting. They wrongly saw Minimum Unit Pricing as the panacea, when, in reality, it’s a blunt instrument to tackle a very complex problem.

“Rather than producing a reduction in alcohol consumption, research from Public Health Scotland suggests that MUP has led to people cutting back on food so that they can afford to drink at the same level."

HeraldScotland: Source: National Records of ScotlandSource: National Records of Scotland

Dr Andrea Mohan, a lecturer in health sciences at Dundee University, said the figures are “heading in a worrying direction”, with the mortality rates for the 45-64 and 65-74 age groups now the highest since records began in 1994. 

Dr Mohan added: “Traditionally there has been a focus on younger age groups but these latest figures highlight that discussion should be moved to these older age groups.

"We need to make an effort to understand and tackle the reasons behind this increase.”

Public Health Minister Maree Todd said Scotland "continues to have a problematic relationship with alcohol, and we are determined to do all we can to address that".

She said that the introduction of Minimum Unit Pricing had helped reduce alcohol sales to their lowest on record but more action was needed to tackle the scale of alcohol-specific deaths.

Ms Todd added: "That is why we are working on initiatives that will support communities across Scotland to address harmful and hazardous alcohol consumption."