Evelyn Gillan: City must heed alcohol warnings

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New research published this week shows that Scottish neighbourhoods with the most licensed premises have the highest rates of alcohol-related illness and deaths.

In areas with the most places to buy alcohol, death rates are more than double the number of those in places with the fewest outlets. The figures are compelling: 34 alcohol-related death rates per 100,000 people in neighbourhoods with the most off-sales compared with 13 per 100,000 in areas with the fewest.

The study, which was undertaken by researchers at Edinburgh and Glasgow universities, generated much discussion when it was launched at Alcohol Focus Scotland’s National Licensing Conference.

One less than impressed tweeter wondered why we needed a research study “to state the bleeding obvious”. The idea that the more places you have selling alcohol the more likely you are to have alcohol-related problems does appear to have a “commonsense” logic. And indeed we already had good evidence from other studies that showed a link between increased access to alcohol and a range of alcohol-related problems including violence, traffic accidents and child neglect. But we didn’t have any studies that looked specifically at Scotland or any that looked at data across a whole country.

But whilst some felt the link between the number of places selling alcohol and the number of alcohol-related deaths was obvious, Councillor Eric Milligan, convener of Edinburgh Licensing Board, expressed the view that focusing on issues like how many outlets there are was a “side issue”.

Given that overprovision of licensed premises is a key element of the licensing legislation which he is charged with implementing, citizens of Edinburgh may be surprised to hear Cllr Milligan believes it to be a “side issue”. Nor does his view chime with the views expressed by the community groups who responded to Edinburgh Licensing Board’s consultation on their statement of licensing policy. All of the community groups who responded called for an increase in the designated areas of overprovision in the city.

The licensing system exists to reduce the risks of harm associated with drinking alcohol. It does this by managing and controlling the availability of alcohol. The environment that we create, particularly in relation to the number of places we allow to sell alcohol, can either enable or constrain drinking.

Recent estimates suggest that the annual cost of alcohol harm in Edinburgh comes in at more than £220 million when you take account of the costs to the NHS, social services, criminal justice and lost productivity. Whether you are a heavy drinker, a moderate drinker, or a non-drinker, everyone in Edinburgh is currently paying the price of alcohol harm.

• Dr Evelyn Gillan is chief executive of Alcohol Focus Scotland