SCOTLAND risks "turning back the clock" to the record surge in alcohol deaths of 30 years ago unless tough action is taken now to curb drinking, doctors have warned. 

More than 30 organisations representing medical professionals, charities and alcohol campaigners have joined forces to urge the Scottish Government to increase investment in alcohol services and recovery support, as well as doing more to prevent harm. 

In a briefing paper they warn that the rising death toll requires an "emergency response" which should include a hike in minimum unit pricing (MUP) from 50 pence to 65 pence, restrictions on marketing - including outdoor advertising, sports sponsorship, and retail displays - and changes to labelling requirements to ensure all alcohol products carry health warnings and calorie information. 

READ MORE: Minimum unit pricing 'saved 156 lives a year'

They also call for the introduction of an Alcohol Harm Levy on retailers who profit from alcohol sales, and a drive to pick up cases of liver disease earlier by testing at-risk patients in GP surgeries and other community clinics. 

There were 1,245 deaths caused directly by alcohol consumption in 2021 - the highest number since 2008 - with "high-risk and harmful" drinking patterns spurred by the pandemic believed to be partly to blame, along with reduced access to support services.

The Herald: Alcohol deaths in Scotland reached a previous record in 2006, having begun to climb rapidly in the early 1990sAlcohol deaths in Scotland reached a previous record in 2006, having begun to climb rapidly in the early 1990s (Image: National Records for Scotland)

Previously, Scotland saw a rapid increase in alcohol deaths from 1994 to a peak of 1,417 in 2006. 

Recent research suggested that Scotland's current death toll from alcohol would be worse without MUP, which is estimated to have saved 156 lives a year since its introduction in 2018. 

However, the briefing paper today warns that tougher measures are needed to reverse the rising tide in mortality.

It states: "Recent modelling from England highlights how these worrying trends will continue to be felt into the future, even if drinking returns to pre-pandemic levels.

"In the worst case, England would see a 20 per cent increase in deaths and an 8% increase in hospitalisations, at a cost to the NHS of £5.2bn over 20 years.

"While the same data is not yet available for Scotland, given our higher rates of consumption and harm, we are likely to see similar patterns here."

READ MORE: The success of minimum unit pricing is measured in deaths that never happen - so how do you count them?

Alison Douglas, chief executive of Alcohol Focus Scotland, said “Before the pandemic almost 1 in 15 of all deaths in Scotland were caused by alcohol.

"Unless urgent action is taken now then we could be sleep-walking our way back to the record levels of deaths we saw in the early 2000s.

"It’s 16 months since the Scottish Government rightly recognised there is a ‘public health emergency’ on alcohol, but there has been no plan to address it.

"This is unacceptable."

The Herald: Humza Yousaf previously indicated he was likely to backtrack on alcohol marketing proposals if he became FMHumza Yousaf previously indicated he was likely to backtrack on alcohol marketing proposals if he became FM (Image: PA)

First Minister Humza Yousaf confirmed yesterday that the Scottish Government's proposals for alcohol marketing restrictions will be "sent back to the drawing board" following a backlash from businesses. 

Potential changes to the MUP levy remain under review.  

Dr Alastair MacGilchrist, chair of the Scottish Health Action on Alcohol Problems (SHAAP) - which represents clinicians - said doctors see the impact of alcohol on patients "day-in, day-out", adding that "urgent action" is needed. 

People living in Scotland's most deprived communities are more than five times as likely to die and six times as likely to be admitted to hospital because of alcohol compared to those in the wealthiest areas.

READ MORE: Is alcohol heading for the same marketing curbs as tobacco? 

Dr David McCartney, lead clinician at the Lothians & Edinburgh Abstinence Programme (LEAP) said: “We really need to see a similar reaction to that around our country’s drug deaths.

"At the moment, things are getting worse.

"We’re seeing people presenting at services in poorer physical and mental health and with more complex needs.”

Dr Catriona Morton, GP and representative of the Royal College of GPs said many patients are "unaware" of the impact of alcohol on their health. 

She added: "The normalisation of drinking, including widespread advertising, presents a significant barrier to reducing consumption on either an individual or societal basis.”

The Herald: Proposals to restrict alcohol advertising, including on outdoor billboards and bus shelters, are now on holdProposals to restrict alcohol advertising, including on outdoor billboards and bus shelters, are now on hold (Image: Getty)

Professor Ewan Forrest, a consultant liver specialist at Glasgow Royal Infirmary said liver disease tends to be detected only once the damage is "very severe".

He said: "As a result the outcomes are very poor and alcohol-related liver disease accounts for the majority of alcohol specific deaths.

"We need to identify people at risk early and then ensure that they have access to effective alcohol treatment services.”

Elena Whitham, minister for drugs and alcohol policy, said the Scottish Government is "determined to do all we can to reduce alcohol-related harm". 

She said: "Recent research estimated [MUP] has helped reduce alcohol sales to their lowest on record, saved hundreds of lives and is having an effect in our most deprived areas.  

“Last year £106.8 million was made available to Alcohol and Drugs Partnerships to support local and national initiatives, including £50.3m to support National Mission priorities.

"Our National Mission includes investment in residential rehabilitation where the majority of patients are being treated for issues related either solely to alcohol or a combination of alcohol and drugs.

"The mission also includes investment in both alcohol and drugs for workforce, tackling stigma, increased support in justice settings and for families impacted by both alcohol and drugs.”