How alcoholism is killing Scots communities

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Cuts to services against the might of the drinks industry is leading to an increase in alcohol-related deaths in Scotland

13th November 2017 by Robert Armour 0 Comments

Registrar Marika Sodolski doesn’t enjoy working ghosters but they’re part of the job and the shifts are “eventful.” They comprise a mixture of late and night duties in Glasgow’s Royal Infirmary  - Scotland’s busiest A&E unit - each lasting no less than 12 hours. If Marika is lucky she’ll miss working a weekend, a rota she has come to fear after being attacked by three drunk teenagers last year while on shift.

The incident, which left her with a broken jaw, led the 33 year-old Polish national to criticise Scotland’s “dangerous” relationship with alcohol in the national press and, alongside paramedic husband Seth, motivated her to create a voluntary project in Hamilton, South Lanarkshire, diverting teens from problem drinking.

I met Marika in the Royal last July as I recovered from illness. She was working in the Hyper Acute Unit and, enthused by the fact I was a journalist, visited most days of my 16 day residency, selling me her project and telling me it could - and should - go national. Her enthusiasm was infectious so I said I would visit her once I got out. I didn’t but I phoned her for this feature only for Marika to tell me the project had run out of cash.

“It’s ironic but I was being naïve,” she said candidly. “We were funded to the tune of around £25,000. That afforded us the rent for the drop-in centre and two occasional part-time staff. But we were told we couldn’t reapply for funding as this year’s allocation was spent. We put all our eggs in one basket but, in truth, I didn’t have the time to source more funding. The project worked but they didn’t care. It was all about cash in the end.”

Marika’s project is not alone. Despite being praised by MSPs and used as an example of best practice by the NHS, the initiative fell foul to a tranche of cuts affecting Scotland’s 30 Alcohol and Drug Partnerships (ADPs). Set up by the Scottish Government to tackle addiction in every local authority area, half of these partnerships - which bring the NHS, local authority and other statutory agencies together - have had their budgets slashed, ironically the biggest of which was shouldered by Lanarkshire to the tune of £700,000 for 2016/17.

Despite alcohol deaths rising last year by 10% and problem drinking costing the nation an estimated £3.5 billion annually, more cuts to ADPs are expected.

Yet Scotland needs more support than ever before to tackle its addiction. It has highest level of alcohol consumption and harm in the UK with one million people in the country drinking above the recommended guidelines, and 24 die because of alcohol every single week – twice the rate of the 1980s.

One in four people are drinking at hazardous or harmful levels, defined as more than 14 units a week. Men drink an average of 16.9 units. Women consume an average of 8.8 units a week, which is within the safe limits but masks the true extent of female drinking habits.

Last year, enough alcohol was sold in Scotland for each drinker to have the equivalent of 48 bottles of vodka, or 124 bottles of wine.

“Cutting alcohol and drugs services is a false economy,” says Alison Douglas, chief executive of Alcohol Focus Scotland. “For every £1 spent on treatment, £5 is saved.

“Early intervention is key to prevent irreparable damage to people’s health and to prevent higher costs to the NHS and public services further down the line. These cuts are felt most by vulnerable people in our society.” 

She talks to me ahead of the Supreme Court’s judgement on minimum alcohol pricing - expected as TFN goes to press - which the Scotch Whisky Association has been contesting since the legislation was decreed by the Scottish Parliament two years ago. Minimum pricing has become a case study in how the industry deliberately puts profit before health and uses increasingly innovative ways to sleepwalk consumers into alcohol dependency.

“Take Prosecco for example,” says Douglas. “It’s being targeted predominately at women, hard-working mothers through a pitch saying they deserve to pamper themselves with a glass of fizz. 

“Whether it is Prosecco, wine or vodka the outcome is the same: it’s not classy to become an alcoholic. It kills and it ruins families. That’s the bitter reality of the drink industry.”

Last year that industry spent nearly £1 billion marketing its products – a 10% rise on the year before. Coincidentally alcohol-related deaths in Scotland went up 10% also.

Research shows that exposure of children and young people to alcohol marketing materials leads them to drink at an earlier age and to drink more than they otherwise would. Movies, television, sponsorship of sporting and music events, online video, social networking sites, magazine advertisements, video games, alcohol-branded merchandise, free samples, and price offers have all been found to affect young people’s alcohol use.

The World Health Organisation states: “The extent and breadth of commercial communications on alcohol and their impact, particularly on young people’s drinking, should not be underestimated.”

With such marketing might, the onslaught is hard to contain. Alcohol is a promotion-driven industry. Brands are consumed because they are promoted. Contain the marketing and you tame the monster says Douglas.

“We’ve seen it with minimum pricing,” she says. “The industry doesn’t want it despite the evidence showing the health benefits. Minimum pricing will save lives. But the industry doesn’t want that. It will hit sales. There’s a direct correlation between sales and health.”

How much does over consumption really cost?

  • There were 1,265 alcohol deaths in 2016 - an increase of 115 compared with 2015

  • 867 of the alcohol-related deaths were men, 398 were women

  • Since 1979, there have been roughly twice as many male deaths as female deaths

  • Some 503 deaths were people aged 45 to 59

  • 468 people aged 60 to 74 died and 147 deaths were in the 75+ age group

  • The 45-59 group has largest number of alcohol deaths every year since 1979

  • One in four drink at hazardous or harmful levels - more than 14 units per week
  • Dr Peter Rice, a psychiatrist specialising in the treatment of problem drinkers and the chair of Scottish Health Action on Alcohol Problems (SHAAP), said tougher action is now needed. 

    SHAAP, which is backed by Scotland’s medical Royal Colleges, now wants to see an end to alcohol sports sponsorship being taken forward by the Scottish Government. Controls on TV advertising are reserved to Westminster but other marketing channels, including sport, are devolved to Holyrood.

    “We think sponsorship of sport increases brand awareness among children and establishes an inappropriate association between alcohol and health,“ he said. “Ultimately, we believe, alcohol marketing should be taken out of sport.

    “Despite the battle over minimum pricing, Scotland has done pretty well on tackling alcohol problems and we shouldn’t lose sight of that. But sports sponsorship we think is a big way for companies to market for young people and kids, particularly to start associations with alcohol, so we would really like to see the back of that.“

    Just outside Aberdeen, Dyce Community Group has seen first-hand the double whammy of an industry marketing in effect a highly addictive substance and the impact of Scottish Government cuts to ADPs. 

    James Slater, a recovering alcoholic who has been sober for eight years, created the Dry Night Drop-In to reach out to those who are finding it hard to give up drinking.

    More and more are coming to the group he says, so much so he needs funding for larger premises.

    “You’ll be surprised who comes to the group,” he told me. “All ages, all professions and none. From the destitute to the wealthy. This is Aberdeen after all – the city of boom and bust. We see it all.”

    Slater applied two years ago for funding to help his group rent a bigger hall in the area. But he was knocked back by the council.

    While he says he could understand if he’d been knocked-back on merit, Slater said it was a straight cash decision.

    “They’ve no money to prioritise alcohol prevention strategies, as they called it. I called it a lifeline. Because it is.”

    One of the successes of the group is its word-of-mouth existence. It doesn’t advertise or run fundraisers. It remains a discrete tight-knit operation that those with alcohol issues have confidence in coming to.

    “The most essential element of what we do is confidentiality,” says Slater. “To encourage people to come, they need full confidence they are in a safe, discreet place. That’s what we offer and more and more people are using the group. It saves people’s lives.”

    Alcohol Focus Scotland, BMA Scotland, Scottish Health Action on Alcohol Problems (SHAAP) and Scottish Families Affected by Alcohol and Drugs all believe the minimum pricing debacle alongside cuts to Scotland’s ADPs is a factor behind this year’s rise in Alcohol deaths.

    In a letter to health minister Shona Robison in August they stated: “We urge the Scottish Government to re-commit its efforts and resources over the longer term to support evidence-based policies that will save Scottish lives.”

    A Scottish Government spokesperson told TFN: “We will be refreshing our Alcohol Strategy, providing opportunity to further consider the additional actions and steps still needed to tackle alcohol-related harm in Scotland."

    How good time drinking almost cost me my life

    How alcoholism is killing Scots communities

    Annie Rutherford has bravely gone public about her alcoholism in aid of Alcohol Awareness Week. Here she tells TFN the reality of drink addiction and how it cost her a marriage, a business and nearly cost her life

    Summer 2014: Glasgow is enthralled by the Referendum and the Commonwealth Games. There’s a fantastic mood in the country. Change is in the air and the nation is excited by expectation.

    I remember it for other reasons, none of them good. At its height my drinking comprised two bottles of wine a day, every day. And not just any old wine: it had to be the good stuff – Chablis, Bougelaise, Champagne even.

    Then there was the gin; fountains of it. I’d mix it with all sorts, creating legendary cocktails my friends came to love and which forged my reputation as the perfect host.

    What they didn’t know was this sociable drinking was already out of control and I was suffering physically.

    My husband and I ran successful fast-food units at all Scotland’s big events including the Royal Highland Show, Home Nations rugby internationals and farmers markets across Scotland. We did well: the model was franchised and at its height we had over 30 units on the go and 100 people working with us.

    The more successful we became the more I drank. At the time I justified it by saying to myself the good stuff can’t harm me. After all, alcoholics drank strong lager, Buckfast and cheap spirits. And all long I kept convincing myself it I deserved it.

    Cracks began to show; drinking made me furious. I was a bad drunk and while my friends didn’t see that side, my husband did. It got to the point we led separate lives under the same roof and I was happy to let that continue in order to facilitate my relationship with the bottle.

    By the end of 2014, the business was suffering. As a qualified accountant I was the brains behind the business while Joe, my husband, did the hard work. More and more I was taking time off and not running the business. A small concern like ours needs a full-time commitment but I had started drinking from morning to night and the business got sold on.

    By that point Joe had left. Still I drank, even more than I did before. By summer 2015 I was in trouble. While I cared little about the financial implications, I couldn’t ignore the physical. I was jaundiced with severe abdominal pain and I knew what was causing it. A visit to hospital confirmed my diagnosis: I had alcoholic liver disease and the only way I could be saved was with a liver transplant.

    I was lucky to get one six months later and it’s the reason why I’m here, in the midst of Alcohol Awareness Week, to tell my story. I won’t get my husband back, my business or my house. But I have got my life and some embers of my dignity remain intact.

    The moral of the story is to recognise the amount you drink before it is too late. Don’t be taken in by the marketing campaigns and the fact that wine, gin and the like are allegedly sophisticated drinks. Take it from me: there’s nothing at all sophisticated about lying in a gutter fighting for your life.