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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. The Scottish Government website states: “The impact of this excessive consumption is estimated to cost Scots £3.6 billion each year, that's equivalent to £900 for each and every adult in Scotland.”

This section describes some of the 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 is no longer asked. The 2015 Scottish Household Survey does ask respondents if they find 'rowdy behaviour' very/fairly common in their neighbourhood; in 2015 10.7% of adults responded positively to this question (see Table 4.5 of the 2015 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. In 2014, Scotland 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 for 2015/16 shows information on drunk driving offences in Scotland.

  • The number of offences for Driving under the influence has decreased over the last 10 years. However, there was a small increase of 5% in 2015/16 (5,458 offences compared to 5,218 in 2014/15) (Table 7).

  • The rate of drunk driving offences in Scotland in 2015/16 was 10 per 10,000 population (Table 8).

    The Department of Transport publishes figures on road traffic accidents in Scotland; see Reported Road Casualties Scotland 2015. Some interesting statistics from this report are:

  • In 2015, 13,839 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 7,931 (57.3%) were requested to take a breath test. The breath test was positive or the motorist refused to take the test for 2.9% of cases (228 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. (Table 19).
  • Table 20 shows that, using 2011 to 2015 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.  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 20% on Sundays. Although the period from 9pm to midnight had the second highest number of positive/refused cases (46), the equivalent percentages were not as high, because between 9pm and midnight there were many more motorists involved in accidents (934) than between midnight and 3am (449).

  • Table 21 shows that, in 2015, of the 228 positive/refused cases, 46.9% occurred between 9pm and 3am (19.3% between 9pm and midnight, plus 27.6% between midnight and 3am).
  • Table 22 shows that the rounded estimate numbers of injury drink-drive accidents fell by 52.1% in the 10-year period between 2004 and 2014 (the latest year for which estimates are available): from 710 to 340, and the number of casualties fell by 56.6% from 1,060 to 460. While fluctuating from year to year, the number of people killed as a result of drink-drive accidents is estimated to have reduced by 50%, from about 40 in 2004 to 20 in 2014. The number of serious casualties is estimated to have dropped by 58.8% (from 170 in 2004 to around 70 in 2014).

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.

  • The 2015/16 report states that levels of recorded offences for drunkenness in Scotland fell 21% between 2008/09 and 2015/16. This includes a 31% decrease from 35,524 offences in 2014/15 to 24,639 in 2015/16.

  • There were 46 drunkenness and other disorderly conduct offences recorded per 10,000 population in Scotland in 2015/16 (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 2015/16, from which these figures are drawn (see page 14):

  • Nearly a third (31%) of the total of 65 persons accused in homicide cases in 2015/16 were reported to have been under the influence of alcohol or alcohol and drugs at the time of the homicide. Of these 65, 14 (22%) were under the influence of alcohol, 6 (9%) were under the influence of both alcohol and drugs and none were under the influence of drugs alone (see Table 15).
  • The percentage of accused persons for whom the drink/drug status was unknown has increased from 51% in 2014/15 to 66% in 2015/16 (see Table 15).
  • In the ten year period between 2006/07 and 2015/16, 48% of all accused were reported to have been drunk and/or under the influence of drugs at the time of the homicide (see Table 15).
  • In 2015/16, in 78% of cases where the main accused was under the influence of alcohol and/or drugs, the victim was also known to have been under the influence of alcohol and/or drugs (see Table 17).
  • Where the main motive for a homicide was a rage or fight, 81% 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

For additional information, the Prisoners: Health in Prison page contains further details.


 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.

Page last updated: 15 September 2017

© Scottish Public Health Observatory 2014