The first response to news of her appointment was dismaying - but summed up neatly the difficulty that lies in examining Scotland's relationship with alcohol.

"You're going to be very boring now," came the text message from Christina McKelvie's friend as she was announced as the newest Minister for Drug and Alcohol Policy.

"I laughed at first and then I thought, actually, that's really quite serious," Ms McKelvie said. "I've got this very serious, important job to do.

"But the first reaction of someone who I knew from a long time ago was 'Oh, you're going to become very boring now'.

"As though you can only be fun when you're drunk, and that's just not not the way it is now."

This is the first interview the MSP has given since being appointed in Humza Yousaf's mini-reshuffle last month and, just three weeks in, Ms McKelvie is still getting across her brief.

She is right, however: this is a serious role with tough challenges - Scotland's drug death rates remain excessively high.

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The most recent alcohol death numbers for 2022 showed an increase of 2% overall deaths.

While the rate of deaths among men remained unchanged from 2021, this number - 31 additional deaths - were all women.

Over the past three years, Scotland has seen a 25% rise in alcohol-related deaths.

Then-First Minister Nicola Sturgeon created the office in 2020 when figures showed Scotland, once again, had the highest drug death rate in Europe.

Minister for Public Health, Joe FitzPatrick, resigned over the matter as Ms Sturgeon admitted Scotland had taken its "eye off the ball on drug deaths" and created a specific post of Minister for Drugs Policy, appointing Angela Constance to the position.

When Humza Yousaf took over from Ms Sturgeon he renamed the post Minister for Drugs and Alcohol Policy in acknowledgement of the issues around tackling Scotland's problematic relationship with booze and appointed Elena Whitham. With a background in social work, Ms McKelvie has a professional insight into the issues her brief is designed to tackle.

Although it is now 17 years since her time in social work in Glasgow, the minister worked for 19 years as a social worker, predominantly with adults with disabilities.

She said: "But you would have families where there would be issues with alcohol abuse, usually linked to poverty or perhaps the responsibility of caring for a either a sibling or a child or an adult child who's suffering.

"If I look back, I think the landscape's changed a lot."

This change is due to an increase in "partnership and collaborative working" - buzzwords much used by the third sector but, Ms McKelvie says, crucial to tackling Scotland's issues.

She plans to introduce a "more connected way" to work, building on that by Ms Constance and then Ms Whitham.

"I came in to this area with that good foundation built," she said.

"Where I want to go with it is is obviously to make the the progress that people want to see in changing some of the attitudes in Scotland.

"Alcohol abuse tends to be a symptom of other things - poverty, inequality, domestic violence.

"It's breaking those cycles, it's giving people options and choices to get the support that they need when they need it, and in a form that they need."

The number of people using alcohol treatment services has fallen by 40% in the past decade.

The minister added: "One of the criticisms we've had in the past is that services are too varied but actually, if you want a proper person-centred approach, which is where my social work instinct comes in, it has to be flexible enough to be tailored to the needs of that person."

Ms McKelvie previously served as minister for equalities and older people and in 2023 was appointed by Humza Yousaf to be Minister for Culture, Europe and International Development.

Her appointment as minister for drug and alcohol policy marks three ministers in the position in less than four years, prompting critics to suggest a lack of stability in the role has led to the brief being less effective than it otherwise might.

Previous minister, Elena Whitham, was in the role for less than a year, stepping down recently citing post traumatic stress disorder.

"I don’t believe this is the case," Ms McKelvie said. "My predecessors have given their all to this vital portfolio, and our shared goals remain the same – to improve and save lives and help those affected by alcohol and drugs harms.

“At grass-roots level, I know the hard work being done by alcohol and drug partnerships and third sector partners has remained constant.

“The importance of this Ministerial role is also underlined by the fact that, as has been the case since we launched our National Mission, I report directly to the First Minister.”

Stigma around seeking help for problematic alcohol use is another issue Ms McKelvie hopes to tackle.

She also believes empathy for people who are struggling is vital.

The minister added: "Although I'm not naïveThe Herald: . There's big issues here. We obviously saw numbers going up last year, and there is a renewed focus on that for my next few weeks."

A criticism of organisations working to tackle addiction is that drug deaths overshadow alcohol addiction and that specific funding should be ring-fenced for drink.


Ms McKelvie said she is aware of this issue and, for her first few weeks of fact-finding, has ensured she speaks to an equal number of drug policy experts and alcohol policy experts.

On the issue of ring-fenced funding, she won't be drawn but she offers instead more partnership working - this time between ministerial portfolios.

She said: "Health is a key area I will be working with and a big benefit at the moment is that Angela Constance has the role of Justice Secretary so she has an insight into both portfolios.

"Angela also comes from the same background in that she was a criminal justice social worker."

One of the most recent - and most controversial - policy decisions to tackle alcohol abuse in Scotland was the increase in minimum unit pricing (MUP).

Last year Public Health Scotland said minimum pricing had been linked to a 13.5% fall in deaths wholly attributable to alcohol, compared with the expected death rate without MUP.

The MUP rose from 50p to 65p with campaigners pushing for a more radical increase, rather than a rise roughly in line with inflation.

Ms McKelvie said: "You're never going to be able to keep everybody happy in a situation like this but from the analysis and the work that many academics and organisations have done, hopefully we will be regarded as having taken a really well informed approach where 65 pence feels like the right balance."

Would the government look at a further increase?

She added: "Never say never - I think we always need to be flexible in these matters."

Towards the end of the year the Scottish Government is expected to bring forward revised proposals on marketing of alcohol but the minister would not divulge how radical - if radical at all -these might be.

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However, she said a main focus would be "protecting children" from alcohol marketing.

"For some of the more detailed areas, we're not quite there yet with that but I think the main thrust of it will be about protecting children," she said.

For now, the minister is still learning about her brief but, she says, she appreciates the task ahead.

She said: "I grew up in the east end of Glasgow during the 70s and the 80s when poverty and inequality were at its worst, that's when we see the effects and the impact of alcohol.

"It's usually a symptom of of other things, to self medicate or women might use alcohol to cope with the violence in their life because if they were numb, they didn't feel it.

"It's very different for men and young men in particular where alcohol plays a huge part of the sort of toxic masculinity.

"If you're in a family that has never been impacted by addiction or alcohol or drugs you're very, very lucky because I don't know anybody that's not an impact on the family."

Ms McKelvie added: "Come back to me in another three weeks and see how far I have come."