You're here: Home / News / Older... / 25 June 2008 - Alcohol in Scotland


Alcohol in Scotland

Three reports have been published giving statistics for alcohol consumption and health consequences in Scotland. 

The first of these, “How much are people in Scotland really drinking?” is an examination of the validity of the national surveys of drinking behaviour. Four such surveys are addressed by the report: the Scottish Health Survey (SHeS), the Health Education Population Survey (HEPS), the Health Behaviour in School-Aged Children study (HBSC), and the Scottish Schools Adolescent Lifestyle and Substance Use Survey (SALSUS). Recently, these have been reorganised so that there are just two surveys, SHeS for adults and SALSUS for children and young people. As the report’s authors point out, relying on just one survey for each age group increases the importance of sound methodology.

To assess the validity, consumption estimates from these surveys were compared with sales figures per head of UK population. Although this is not perfect, it is the best available estimate of total alcohol consumption. The sales figures indicate that 22 units of alcohol were sold per week for every adult in the UK, in 2003. In contrast, the SHeS indicates an average consumption of just 12 units per adult, per week in the same year (the most recent year that survey was conducted). This suggests that survey data underestimate consumption by almost 50%.

In spite of underestimating to this degree, survey data might still give reliable information about trends in consumption, if the degree of error does not change over time. However, the report found a widening gap between sales figures and survey data, suggesting that the degree of underestimation has got worse. Therefore, trends based on survey data should be treated with caution.

In response to the findings of this review, NHS Health Scotland and the Scottish Government have worked together to recalculate drinking figures from the most recent Scottish Health Survey (2003) taking account of recent increases in drink strength. The first of these revised alcohol consumption estimates have now been published. 

Consumption was recalculated using new estimates of the number of units in each drink, as calculated by the ONS,  [link to ias news story ]. This revision increased the estimate of the average weekly consumption for men from 17.2 units to 20.3 units. For women, the corresponding increase was greater, from 6.5 units per week to 9.1 units per week. The reason that the revision had a greater effect on women is that the estimates changed most for wine, and women tend to drink more wine than men.

Using the previous unit conversion factors 27% of men reported their usual alcohol consumption as being more than the recommended limit of 21 units per week. Using the new conversion factors shows this to be 34%. The proportion of women who reported drinking more than the recommended limit of 14 units per week was 14% using the previous factors and 23% with the updated factors.

The third report is an overview of Community Health and Wellbeing Profiles for Scotland. These profiles provide information about health indicators at a local level, by Community Health Partnership (CHP) and in more detail. The report covers a wide range of indicators, including alcohol-related and alcohol-attributable hospital admissions. These are combined into a single measure, being the total number of admissions for conditions directly caused by alcohol and a proportion of admissions for conditions where alcohol contributes to the number of cases.

The numbers of hospital admissions are expressed as standardised admission rates, that is, the number of admissions per 100,000 population, per year. Figures ranged from 521 admissions per 100,000 for the best CHP, East Dunbartonshire, to 1,505 per 100,000 for the worst CHP, East Glasgow. For Scotland as a whole, rates have been increasing over time, though for some areas, including East Dunbartonshire, rates have declined.

All three reports are available from the news archive at the Scottish Public Health Observatory:

The Revised Alcohol Consumption Estimates from the 2003 Scottish Health Survey may be accessed via the information on How much are people in Scotland really drinking?

For Community Health and Wellbeing Profiles, profiles for Glasgow are covered in a separate report:

Download the the two pages relating to alcohol here. (pdf 558kb)