Low earners at greater risk from local access to alcohol, research finds

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The likelihood of people on the lowest incomes drinking too much increases in line with the availability of alcohol in their area, according to a study.

Researchers from the universities of Edinburgh and Glasgow studied the links between alcohol consumption and income in Scotland, and found that the country’s poorest people are disproportionately affected by the availability of alcohol in their neighbourhood.

The amount of drink consumed by those on the highest incomes in Scotland is far less affected by the number of outlets near their homes, the findings suggest.

The experts have called for “radical” policy changes to tackle health inequalities and alcohol-related harm, and said moves to tackle dangerous drinking which focus solely on consumer behaviour may not go far enough.

The research team combined data on the density of alcohol outlets in towns and cities across the country with details from a national health survey of more than 28,000 people.

They said their finding that low earners are most at risk from local access to alcohol could be driven by “many factors”, including that low-income groups may spend more time in their local areas and be more reliant on these neighbourhoods.

The researchers suggest that interventions to reduce drinking which focus exclusively on an individual’s behaviour, such as media campaigns and warning labels on products, are unlikely to make significant improvements to health.

Changes should include reducing the availability of alcohol, they argue.

The team has previously shown that there are more premises selling alcohol in the poorest parts of Scotland than in the wealthiest areas.

The Scottish Government plans to introduce a minimum price for alcohol of 50p a unit on May 1, becoming the first country in the world to do so.

Study leader Dr Niamh Shortt, of Edinburgh University’s School of GeoSciences, said: “Reducing alcohol-related harm is a key public health priority and Scotland is leading the way with the implementation of a minimum unit price. There is, however, more to be done.

“Low-income groups suffer most from alcohol-related harm and our research shows that they are also at the greatest risk from its ubiquitous availability in our neighbourhoods. Alongside price, we need to address the easy availability of alcohol.”

Katherine Hale, head of health information for World Cancer Research Fund UK, said the findings are valuable.

“We support any initiative that goes beyond simply informing the public of the health risks around alcohol with a view to decreasing overall intake and health inequality,” she said.

“Changing our environment is a good way to encourage behavioural change. We have strong scientific evidence that all types of alcoholic drinks increase the risk of several types of cancer, including breast and bowel.”

A Scottish Government spokesman said: “While progress has been made in tackling alcohol misuse, including our internationally-leading minimum unit pricing policy, we’re determined to go further.

“We recognise that excessive daily and weekly consumption is common across different age, gender and socio-economic groups, although we know that the greatest harm is experienced by those who live in the most deprived areas.

“We will be refreshing our alcohol strategy shortly and our focus is on implementing minimum unit pricing in May which will target heavy drinkers as they tend to drink the cheap, high strength alcohol that will be most affected by the policy.”

The study, funded by The European Research Council and the Scottish Collaboration for Public Health Research and Policy, has been published in the journal Annals of the American Association of Geographers.

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