Alcohol: social harm

Excessive consumption of alcohol can have harmful and wide-reaching consequences for individuals, their family and friends as well as communities and the economy. Alcohol was estimated to cost Scotland £2.25 billion in 2006/07. Estimated costs for Scotland were: health service (£405 million); social work (£170 million); criminal justice and fire service (£385 million); wider economic costs (£820 million) and human costs (£470 million) (Scottish Government 2008).

This section describes some of those consequences of alcohol misuse for both adults and young people. The data are drawn from general population surveys and from routine data collected by agencies such as the police, emergency and
criminal justice services. Surveys reflect respondents' self-reported answers and are not based on direct observation. Typically only a (representative) sample of the population is surveyed and therefore figures are estimates rather
than exact measures.

Perceptions of alcohol-related social harm

The public perceive alcohol abuse to be a social problem in Scotland. This is reflected in the responses to a section of the 2010/11 Scottish Crime and Justice Survey focusing on perceived 'problems' in Scotland. This topic was not covered in the most recent Survey (2014/15) so the figures below are from the 2010/11 Survey:

  • Ninety-six per cent of respondents considered alcohol abuse in Scotland to be a problem, with almost three quarters (74%) perceiving it as a big problem (main survey; P1 Table 1).
  • There is slight variation across age groups with 16-24 year olds the least likely to view alcohol abuse as a big problem in Scottish society (demographic breaks, P16 Table 9).
  • Women perceive alcohol abuse to be a greater problem in society than men do, with 78% of women viewing it to be a big problem compared to 69% of men (demographic breaks, P16 Table 9).
  • Perception of alcohol abuse as a social problem varied across Scottish Community Justice Authority Areas with 80% perceiving it as a big problem in Lanarkshire compared to 68% in Lothian & Borders (police force and community justice authority area breaks, P9 Table 9).
  • Those living in the most deprived areas were more likely to perceive alcohol abuse as a big social problem (80% in the 15% most deprived areas compared to 73% in the rest). However, fewer people in the most deprived areas felt it was a bit of a problem compared to those in the least deprived areas (18% compared to 24%). When those who consider alcohol abuse a big problem and a bit of a problem are combined, the numbers are broadly similar across deprivation categories (demographic breaks, P17, Table 9).

According to the responses to the Scottish Household Survey, in 2008 4.1% of the Scottish population considered alcohol abuse as an aspect of their neighbourhood they particularly disliked. This question was no longer asked in the 2012 Survey. The 2014 Scottish Household Survey does ask respondents if they find 'rowdy behaviour' very/fairly common in their neighbourhood; in 2014 11.7% of adults responded positively to this question (see Table 4.4 of the 2014 Annual Report). Although not strictly specific to alcohol, this indicator is included in the ScotPHO Alcohol Profiles by NHS Board and by ADP.

Alcohol and traffic

Alcohol affects co-ordination, reaction times, and increases risk taking. Therefore many countries have a legal limit for drinking and driving, which in the UK is currently 80 milligrams of alcohol in 100 millilitres of blood (80mg/100ml). This is equivalent to 35 micrograms in 100 millilitres of breath. Scotland recently lowered The Drink Drive Limit to bring it in line with the majority of the EU. It is now less than the rest of the UK, currently 50 milligrams of alcohol in 100 millilitres of blood (50mg/100ml) or 22 micrograms in 100 millilitres of breath. The Recorded Crime in Scotland  publication shows information on drunk driving offences in Scotland.

  • The number of offences for Driving under the influence has decreased over the last 10 years. There were 5,218 offences of drunk driving in 2014/15. This was a decrease of 14% from 6,079 in 2013/14. (Table 6).

  • The rate of drunk driving offences in Scotland in 2014/15 was 10 per 10,000 population (Table 8).

  • The highest rate was in the Shetland Isles (18 per 10,000 population) (Table 8).

The Department of Transport publishes figures on road traffic accidents in Scotland; see Reported Road Casualties Scotland 2014. Some interesting statistics from this report are:

  • In 2014, 14,315 motorists were known to be involved in injury road accidents (the figures do not include drivers involved in hit and run accidents that were not traced). Of these 8,434 (58.9%) were requested to take a breath test. The breath test was positive or the motorist refused to take the test for 2.6% of cases (222 cases) where a breath test was requested. This represented 1.6% of the total number of motorists involved in a road accident resulting in an injury. These rates have dropped slightly over the last few years (Table 19).
  • Table 21 shows that, in 2014, of the 222 positive / refused cases, 43% occurred between 9pm and 3am (18% between 9pm and midnight, plus 25% between midnight and 3am). Table 20 shows that, using 2010 to 2014 averages, the number of positive / refused cases, expressed as a percentage of motorists involved in accidents, was highest (at around 15%) between midnight and 3am, but the time slot that varied the most depending upon the day of the week was the 3am to 6am slot, from 7% (the average for Mondays to Thursdays) to 21% on Sundays. Table 20 shows that although the period from 9pm to midnight had the second highest number of positive / refused cases (51), the equivalent percentages were not as high, because between 9pm and midnight there were many more motorists involved in accidents (969) than between midnight and 3am (477).
  • Table 22 shows that the numbers of injury drink-drive accidents fell by 56% between 2003 and 2013 (the latest year for which estimates are available): from a rounded estimate of 750 to roughly 330 (accidents) and from around 1,130 to some 450 (casualties). While fluctuating from year to year, the number of people killed as a result of drink-drive accidents is estimated to have reduced by 60%, from about 50 in 2003 to around 20 in 2013. The number of serious casualties is estimated to have dropped by a similar amount (from roughly 230 in 2003 to around 70 in 2013).

Alcohol-related offences/crimes

Drunkenness can be a contributory factor in many crimes (such as assault or breach of the peace) but is not recorded as such. Variation in the offence of drunkenness both over time and by geographical area may be influenced by local policing practice and interventions. The Police and Fire Reform (Scotland) Act 2012 saw the previous eight police forces merge into a single Police Service of Scotland. The comparability of the data extracted from the new unified system with those extracted from the previous system was assessed and as a result the definition of “drunkenness and other disorderly conduct” has been updated and reported in the Recorded Crime in Scotland publications.

  • Table 6 of the 2014/15 report (4.62 MB) shows that recorded offences for drunkenness in Scotland after years of increases have decreased in the most recent year. The number of offences of drunkenness and other disorderly conduct recorded by the police decreased from 43,043 offences in 2013/14 to 35,524 in 2014/15.

  • There were 66 drunkenness and other disorderly conduct offences recorded per 10,000 population in Scotland in 2014/15 (Table 8).

Information about a number of anti-social behaviour offences that are quite commonly associated with alcohol misuse (serious assault, common assault, vandalism and breach of the peace), by NHS Board and by ADP, can be found in the ScotPHO Alcohol Profiles.

The Scottish Crime and Justice Survey 2014-15 reports on whether victims of violent crime perceived that the offender was under the influence of alcohol. In 2014/15 the victim said the offender was under the influence of alcohol in 54% of cases of violent crime, down from 59% of cases in 2012/13.

The Scottish Government Justice Department publishes figures on homicides relating to alcohol in the statistics release Homicide in Scotland 2014/15, from which these figures are drawn (see section 4.7):

  • More than a third (38%) of the total of 77 persons accused in homicide cases in 2014/15 were reported to have been drunk and/or under the influence of drugs at the time of the homicide (see Table 15). Of the 77, 11 (14%) were drunk, 2 (3%) were on drugs, and 16 (21%) were both drunk and on drugs.
  • The percentage of accused persons for whom the drink/drug status was unknown has increased from 29% in 2013/14 to 49% in 2014/15 (see Table 15).
  • In the ten year period between 2005/06 and 2014/15, 51% of all accused were reported to have been drunk and/or under the influence of drugs at the time of the homicide (Table 16).
  • In 2014/15, nearly four fifths of these cases (78%) where the main accused was drunk and/or on drugs, the victim was also known to have been drunk and/or on drugs. Where the main motive for a homicide was a rage or fight, 78% of those cases where the accused had a status of drunk and/or on drugs, the victim was also drunk and/or on drugs (see Table 17).

Alcohol use amongst prisoners

The Scottish Prisoner Survey is undertaken in each of the 16 Scottish prisons. It is a self-completion survey and completion is not compulsory, so the questionnaire and sections of it (or just individual questions) can be left unanswered. The overall response rate was 60%. The following statistics are taken from the 2013 and 2015 Surveys (Main Bulletin, Substance Misuse and  Young People in Custody reports):

  • More than four in ten (41%) adult respondents said they were drunk at the time of their offence, an absolute decrease of 4% since 2013. Nearly one in five (19%) reported that drinking affected their ability to hold down a job and just under one third (32%) admitted that their drinking affected their relationship with their family.
  • Sixty percent of young people in custody reported being drunk at the time of their offence. One in five (22%) reported that drinking affected their ability to hold down a job and 39% admitted that their drinking affected the relationship with their family.
  • Almost three times as many prisoners who had served over 10 sentences said that they were worried that alcohol would be a problem for them when they got out (31%) compared to those who had not served a sentence before (12%).
  • More than twice as many of those who had served more than 10 sentences (30%) admitted that drinking had affected their ability to hold down a job, compared to 13% of those who had never served a sentence previously. Similarly 41% of those who had been in prison more than ten times revealed that alcohol had affected their relationships with their family, compared to 26% of the ‘never’ served a sentence before group.

The Scottish Prisoner Survey 2013 included the ten item questionnaire, the Alcohol Use Disorders Identification Test (AUDIT) (171.76 KB). The 2013 Prisoner Survey 2013 - Substance Misuse report gives results for each item individually. The Excel file AUDIT-Prisoner-Survey-2013.xlsx (14.9 KB) shows results for the combined score, grouped into drinking risk categories. Key points are:

  • Of those who answered all 10 items of AUDIT, a third of the respondents were classed as possibly alcohol dependent;
  • Prisoners engaging in harmful drinking generally have served more sentences than those with low-risk drinking. For example, 45% of these in the low-risk drinking category had never been in prison before, compared with 21% of those possibly alcohol dependent;
  • Fewer of the low-risk category had been in prison 10 times or more compared with those possibly alcohol dependent (8% compared with 21%, respectively).

The overall response rate to the Scottish Prisoner Survey was 60% with just under half of the respondents answering all AUDIT questions. Questions relate to the year prior to the date of the survey, so for some prisoners this may refer to a period they were in prison, whereas for others this may refer to a period they were in the community. The results are comparable with AUDIT scores in Scottish prisoners from other Scottish research (Parkes et al. - Prison health needs assessment for alcohol problems; 2010).


Please note: If you require the most up-to-date data available, please check the data sources directly as new data may have been published since these data pages were last updated. Although we endeavour to ensure that the data pages are kept up-to-date, there may be a time lag between new data being published and the relevant ScotPHO web pages being updated.