It is not exactly clear whether Scotland's alcohol deaths are going up, down, or levelling off.

The latest data, for 2022, reveal a 2% year-on-year increase in alcohol-specific deaths - up by 31 - but this is not considered "statistically significant".

But for those who lost their lives - and their loved ones - it is a very real, and avoidable, tragedy.

READ MORE: Alcohol deaths at 15-year high in Scotland as drinking overtakes drugs 

Depending on how you view them, the figures appear to signal both a reset and a change.

Once again, alcohol deaths outnumber those from drug misuse. Until 2018 - when drug deaths pulled ahead - this had been the norm.

Back in the year 2000, there were 1,144 alcohol deaths to 292 drug deaths; last year the difference was 225.

But the statistics also paint a picture of a generational gulf in alcohol harm.

Between 1994 and 2014, alcohol-specific mortality rates were consistently highest in the 45 to 64 age group.

Over the past decade, this has largely shifted into the 65 to 74 bracket.

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At the same time, the mortality rate from alcohol among the over-75s - on a par with the 25-44 age group as recently as 2011 - is now more than twice as high.

As a growing number of young people have cut back or shunned alcohol altogether, older adults - with more entrenched drinking habits - appear to have spiralled.

The Herald: Older Scots are seeing mortality rates from alcohol increaseOlder Scots are seeing mortality rates from alcohol increase (Image: NRS)

Covid lockdowns were blamed for "polarising" drinking habits with evidence indicating that while low to moderate drinkers reduced, heavier drinkers consumed more - tipping those already at risk into fatal liver disease.

The first year after minimum unit pricing (MUP) came into force, alcohol deaths fell by 10%, only to rebound again as 2020 and the pandemic struck.

They have now increased for three years in a row, although there are hopes that we may now be plateauing.

READ MORE: Minimum unit pricing, liver disease, and alcohol deaths 

It may seem confounding that alcohol deaths can increase in number even as MUP is hailed as a life-saving intervention, but modelling which compared patterns in Scotland against MUP-free England as a control population suggests that the policy has avoided around 150 deaths per year on average since its introduction.

In other words, the situation would have been much worse without it.

The Herald: Alcohol deaths fell in the first year after minimum unit pricing, but have increased for the past three years in a rowAlcohol deaths fell in the first year after minimum unit pricing, but have increased for the past three years in a row (Image: NRS)

Inevitably, however, counting hypothetical deaths-that-never-happened is a harder sell to MUP sceptics than a straightforward reduction.

The question is, what next? Campaigners argue that MUP - set over a decade ago and blunted by inflation - must increase to continue having any effect.

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There is also a push for marketing restrictions as part of an effort to reduce children's exposure to alcohol advertising and the "normalisation" of Scotland's drinking culture, including through cigarette-style health warnings on packaging.

Others argue that only by tackling alcohol with the same urgency as the drug deaths crisis will we see the sustained, downward trend we need.