NEW pubs and off-licences should be banned in areas already saturated with alcohol sales in a bid to curb harmful drinking, experts have said.

Statistics showing the volume of alcohol being sold within particular neighbourhoods should also be routinely available to licensing boards.

Dr Eric Carlin, director of Scottish Health Action on Alcohol Problems (SHAAP), said nothing should be "off the table" as the Scottish Government prepares issue its updated alcohol strategy.

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It comes as research today reveals that the poorest Scots are much more likely to develop harmful drinking patterns if they live in a postcode with a high concentration of premises selling alcohol. By contrast, the amount of alcohol consumed by people on the highest incomes is barely influenced by the number of outlets near their homes.

Previous research has found that communities with a higher density of alcohol outlets have higher levels of alcohol consumption and alcohol-related harm. However, the study by Edinburgh University is the first to show that the lowest earners are disproportionately affected.

Dr Niamh Shortt, who led the study, said: “Reducing alcohol-related harm is a key public health priority and Scotland is leading the way with the implementation of a Minimum Unit Price. There is however more to be done.

"Low-income groups suffer most from alcohol-related harm, and our research shows that they are also at the greatest risk from its ubiquitous availability in our neighbourhoods.

"Alongside price, we need to address the easy availability of alcohol.”

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The results are based on analysing every postcode in Scotland against data on alcohol intakes and behaviour, the total number of licensed premises - including pubs, bars, clubs, off-licences and supermarkets - and household income split into three categories, from low (under £16,339) and medium (£16,339-£31,707) to high (over £31,707).

Binge drinking - defined as more than eight units in a day for men or more six units in a day for women - was most common among the more affluent, but "harmful drinking" was more frequent among lower earners. This was classed as consuming more than 51 units per week in men or more than 36 units in women.

Harmful drinking among low earners increased as the concentration of outlets grew, a pattern not seen among the more affluent.

The study adds: "In the highest density neighbourhoods those on the lowest incomes have the highest levels of harmful drinking and problem drinking."

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Dr Carlin said he was not surprised by the findings, adding that SHAAP has already urged the Scottish Government to crackdown on alcohol availability by shaking up the licensing system.

In particular, the organisation has called for the introduction of a national licensing body which would oversee local licensing boards to prevent "over-provision".

Dr Carlin said: "It would provide guidance on how boards should determine whether an applicant has demonstrated that granting them a licence isn't going to take more alcohol into an area which has enough there already.

"We are also asking for alcohol sales data to be provided to licensing boards as part of the licensing arrangements.

"Licensees will collect their own data on their alcohol sales, but providing that data to the licensing boards would give a clear idea of how much alcohol is being sold in a particular neighbourhood.

"That's not done at the moment and the industry have been very anti supplying that information."

The UK has one of the highest average alcohol consumptions in Europe, but the typical intake per adult in Scotland is 20 per cent higher than in England and Wales.

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Alison Douglas, chief executive of Alcohol Focus Scotland, said: “We know that reducing the availability of alcohol, increasing the price and restricting marketing are among the most powerful measures to reduce consumption and harm.

“The Scottish Government must give local licensing boards stronger direction on controlling alcohol availability.

"Boards themselves should be assessing over-provision as part of their local policy statements, which they are due to publish by November.”

A Scottish Government spokesman said: “While progress has been made in tackling alcohol misuse, including our internationally-leading minimum unit pricing policy, we’re determined to go further.

“We recognise that excessive daily and weekly consumption is common across different age, gender and socio-economic groups, although we know that the greatest harm is experienced by those who live in the most deprived areas.

“We will be refreshing our Alcohol Strategy shortly and our focus is on implementing minimum unit pricing in May which will which will target heavy drinkers as they tend to drink the cheap, high strength alcohol that will be most affected by the policy.”