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Alcohol-related harm in Glasgow: a national, city and neighbourhood perspective

23 June 2014

Eric Carlin, Director of Scottish Health Action on Alcohol Problems (SHAAP), discusses recent research on alcohol-related harm.

Stark stats

The GCPH Briefing Paper 42 illustrates starkly the links between alcohol harm and social and economic disadvantage. In Glasgow, the rate of alcohol-related deaths is twice the Scottish average and there are local level area inequalities within this. For example, the annual rate of alcohol-related death in Pollokshields, a relatively affluent neighbourhood, is around 19 per 100,000, whereas in Calton, a deprived inner-city neighbourhood, it rises to a shocking 101 deaths per 100,000.

These are not simply statistics in a report. These are people’s mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, partners, friends, whose early deaths could be prevented – and the poor suffer more.

Coping through comedy?

How do Glaswegians cope? As well as being fiercely proud, Glaswegians often laugh at themselves and their situations. A T-shirt purchased at the city’s celebrated ’Barras’ market suggested a strategy of “Keep calm and drink Buckfast”.

However, as Peter Ustinov once said, “Comedy is simply a funny way of being serious” and the Glaswegian sense of humour often shines an important spotlight on the city’s social problems.

The title of the BBC comedy ‘Still Game’, set in a disadvantaged Glasgow neighbourhood and often in the local bar, evokes the idea of immovability, nothing changing. The series touches, often in hilarious ways, on issues related to embedded and long term poverty and marginalisation as well as dealing with specific issues such as ageing, mental health, racism, alcoholism and violence. All are explored with a typical Glaswegian style.

Serious outcomes

The Glasgow sense of humour is absent in cold statements in the GCPH paper, such as:

“Those in the most deprived areas experience the highest alcohol-related death rates”.

There’s a clear message that public health priorities need to include action to reduce social and economic inequalities. It is not sufficient to support poor people to be ’resilient’ in the face of disadvantage; rather, structural disadvantage itself needs to be challenged by politicians and health advocates.

Role of the alcohol industry

Specifically in relation to alcohol policy, the alcohol industry uses its multi-billion dollar financial muscle to promote a focus on providing information and education to encourage ‘problem’ drinkers to change their behaviour and emphasise individual responsibility.

At the same time, huge alcohol producers with their priority of maximising shareholder profits, invest huge amounts in lobbying and legal action, to ensure that actions to tackle corporate irresponsibility, such as regulation on availability, price and marketing, are blocked, often in ways that come uncomfortably close to being anti-democratic.

Recent improvements in alcohol-related health statistics (albeit from an unprecedented high position) are connected to the reduced affordability of alcohol in the financial crisis. There is substantial evidence that raising the price of the cheapest alcohol has the most impact on those who drink in the most harmful ways.

As I have discussed elsewhere (see video below), large parts of the alcohol industry, including the Scotch Whisky Association, consistently oppose the strategic actions that will reduce overall consumption of alcohol across the whole population and which will benefit the most disadvantaged communities (who suffer the most harms), in Glasgow and elsewhere, most of all.

For Glaswegians and others who care about social justice, it’s time to be fierce. The GCPH paper reminds us of the need to ensure that decisions that prioritise public health need to be made by elected politicians, with no interference by economic operators who make money from promoting cheap, health-harming alcohol products to vulnerable people.

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About the author

Eric Carlin Director

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Eric Carlin is Director of SHAAP (Scottish Health Action on Alcohol Problems), a partnership of the Scottish Medical Royal Colleges to advocate for effective alcohol policy and to support good practice in service provision.

Eric is also carrying out PhD research focussing on youth transitions, marginalisation and theories of resilience.  He returned to Scotland in 2010 after more than 25 years away. Eric is writing in a personal capacity.

Read all blog posts by Eric Carlin

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