Deaths wholly linked to alcohol increased in Scotland since before the coronavirus pandemic despite consumption decreasing in general, a study has found.
Public Health Scotland said alcohol sales in supermarkets and shops increased during Covid, as bars and restaurants were forced to close due to restrictions.
Research shows alcohol-related deaths were 9% higher in 2020 than the annual average in 2017-19.
And the report also found that while rates of hospital stays related to alcohol fell, rates of alcohol-specific death increased.
The increase was driven particularly by males and those aged 45 to 64 years, groups that already had among the highest alcohol-specific death rates before the pandemic.
Lucie Giles, public health intelligence principal at Public Health Scotland, said: “The data show that the number of people accessing hospital with an alcohol-related diagnosis fell during the pandemic, particularly at times when restrictions were at their most stringent.
“We saw the greatest reductions amongst men and those aged 45 years and over and it was in these same groups that we saw increases in deaths caused by alcohol. This was despite average alcohol consumption for the population falling, a change driven by a reduction in sales of alcohol through pubs and clubs.
“Despite the reduction in sales overall the data indicate that population level consumption of alcohol was still above recommended levels.
“Between March 2020 and May 2021, 17 units (171 ml) of pure alcohol have been sold per adult each week on average, 16 (162 ml) of which have been from off-trade premises. This represents enough alcohol to put every adult in Scotland over the Chief Medical Officer’s low-risk weekly drinking guideline of 14 units.
“Taken together, the evidence points to increased drinking amongst some groups, coupled with a reduction in the number of people accessing hospital treatment and greater rates of death caused by alcohol.
“Tackling alcohol consumption and harms, particularly among high-risk groups, should be a critical objective of any Covid-19 recovery plans.”
There were fewer hospital admissions involving a diagnosis entirely attributed to alcohol, with rates 7.3% lower in 2020 than the 2017–19 average, the research found.
But the report warned there were “substantially reduced hospital admissions overall”, with a 30% reduction in all admissions to general acute hospitals in Scotland between 2019/20 and 2020/21.
In response to the study, Alison Douglas, chief executive of Alcohol Focus Scotland, which works to prevent alcohol harm, said: “While it is positive that overall Scots drank less during the last two years, this needs to seen in the context of the devastating rise in deaths caused by alcohol during the same period.
“Drinking habits appear to have become polarised; some have cut down, while others – particularly heavier drinkers – have increased their drinking.
“In addition, it has been challenging for people to access the support they need, with reports of services being reduced or operating online for periods of time.”
Ms Douglas echoed conclusions from the report saying helping people to reduce how much they drink “must remain a priority as part of Scotland’s recovery from Covid-19”.
She said this can be achieved both through measures such as increasing the minimum unit price to 65p per unit, introducing restrictions on alcohol marketing, and reducing the ready availability of alcohol.
Public health minister Maree Todd said the Covid pandemic had impacted society in many ways, adding that “since the beginning we’ve taken action to assist those who are drinking at harmful levels”.
She stated: “Throughout the pandemic we allocated additional funding to extend outreach initiatives which identify people at risk, address their immediate health concerns, and get them the support they need.
“We’re determined to go further, which is why we are focusing on reducing harms where they are greatest.
“To help achieve this we are consulting on potential restrictions on alcohol advertising, reviewing the level of the minimum unit price, and improving health information on product labels.”
Investment in tackling problematic alcohol and drug use has been increased, along with that for residential rehabilitation, the minister added.
She said: “Work on reducing alcohol harms is ongoing, and there is more to understand about the impact of the pandemic on these harms.”
Alex Cole-Hamilton, the leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats, said that “raising the minimum unit price to 65p, in line with the original ambition of the policy, would cut alcohol misuse and reduce the pressure on our health and justice systems”.
“Alcohol misuse can wreck lives, communities, and families,” said the MSP.
“The health secretary’s current plan is not sufficient to avoid these preventable deaths, and the SNP’s inaction over time has allowed inflation to erode the impact of the original policy. Scotland urgently needs fresh measures to address its harmful relationship with alcohol.”
Sue Webber, the Scottish Conservative’s shadow public health minister, said that Scotland “continues to have significant issues in dealing with alcohol and it is clear that the SNP’s current strategies are simply not working”.
“It is deeply concerning alcohol deaths rose during the Covid pandemic. As we look beyond this crisis, that simply cannot continue,” the MSP said.