NHS Scotland's latest report on alcohol sales data indicates an end to the downward trend in alcohol consumption. It suggests the trend is now 'flattening' in Scotland, with similar patterns in England and Wales.
The report analyses alcohol sales using specialist market research data and price band analyses. It suggests that 'off-trade sales may be returning to an upward trend', with a continuing shift in the share of alcohol being sold through off-sales. 72% of alcohol in Scotland is now sold by supermarkets and off-licenses, at an average price of 52 pence per unit (ppu) versus £1.66 ppu for the on-trade.
Scotland's alcohol consumption also remains significantly higher than the rest of the UK, with the 18% difference in sales almost wholly made up by off-trade units, particularly lower priced vodka.
In 2014, 10.7 litres of pure alcohol were sold per adult in Scotland, equivalent to 20.5 units per adult per week. In 1994 (the data start point) consumption was around 6% less, but then saw a ten year period of rising sales, following by a by a 9% decline between 2009 and 2013. In England & Wales, 2014 sales data was 9.0L per adult (17.4 units per adult per week), the first year in five it did not drop, taking it to same level as in 2013.
Politics and economics...
The timing of the report may be viewed as pertinent by the Scottish Government and those supporting its attempts to introduce Minimum Unit Pricing (MUP), currently still going through an EU legal challenge. Whilst industry opponents continue to claim MUP would be ineffective and 'punishes the responsible majority', MUP advocates highlight most affected units are consumed by the heaviest drinkers, hence being a targeted measure.
Dr Mark Robinson, Public Health Information Manager at NHS Health Scotland, said the data was “concerning...that off-trade alcohol sales may be starting to rise again" which "coincided with increasing disposable incomes and wider economic conditions that have kept the price of off-sales alcohol low."
A supporting infographic highlights 52% of off-trade alcohol was sold below Scotland's intended MUP of 50 pence. The gap between Scotland's off-trade and on-trade prices has also continued to widen; from a gap of 56ppu in 2000 to 113ppu in 2014.
Trade reports however highlight the off-trade's success has pushed the UK drinks market back into growth, with the recent duty cuts making a positive impact and "consumers finally getting the break they deserve", says the WSTA's Miles Beale.
Sales and consumption.. not so simple
Regional differences in consumption and harm are of course worth noting, as are significant differences in typical consumption between age groups. Recent consumption falls are more pronounced amongst young people, while concerns of rising alcohol problems amongst older adults have been mounting.
Falls in consumption over the last decade may in part be linked to public health activity and growing consumer awareness of health risks. A swing back to rising consumption could indicate the limitations of this activity in the face of stronger economic influences.