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Scotland Faces Highest Alcohol Death Toll in 14 Years

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The number of alcohol-specific deaths in Scotland has reached a 14-year high, despite the government’s efforts to reduce it with the implementation of a minimum unit price (MUP) policy. Official figures published on Tuesday revealed that the death toll had risen to 1,276 in 2022, the highest level since 2008. The government altered a press release, originally stating that evidence showed the MUP policy had been effective in reducing alcohol deaths and hospitalisations, to say that the benefits were estimated. Critics argue that population-level policies like MUP rarely work, but the alcohol minister defended the policy, stating that she believes the number of deaths would have been higher without it.

The MUP policy, which sets a minimum price of 50 pence per unit of alcohol, was implemented in 2018 to make alcohol less affordable. However, the death toll only had a one-off drop in 2019 before returning to its previous upward trajectory. Some researchers argue that treatment for alcohol dependency is more effective and that difficulty in accessing face-to-face treatment during the pandemic contributed to an increase in alcohol-related deaths. The charity Alcohol Focus Scotland believes that increasing the MUP to 65 pence would help reduce the death toll.

The government’s claim that the MUP policy had reduced alcohol-related deaths and hospital admissions was disputed by critics, who said that only one out of the 40 studies cited suggested a reduction in deaths, and only eight presented evidence of alcohol-related health outcomes. In response to criticism, the government altered the press release, changing “showed” to “estimated.” Public Health Scotland, which conducted the evaluation, maintains that overall evidence supports the MUP policy’s positive impact on health outcomes and that there is no clear evidence of substantial negative impacts on the alcoholic drinks industry or social harms at the population level.

The Public Health Scotland report, which incorporated feedback from civil servants, revealed that alcohol consumption had fallen after the introduction of the MUP policy. Draft versions of the report and email exchanges between Public Health Scotland and the government showed that the government had previewed the report and made suggestions for factual correction and policy usefulness. The final version of the report adopted some of these suggestions. The alcohol minister also stated that a plan to ban alcohol advertisements cannot be ruled out.

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