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Local health board initiates debate about how to tackle islanders’ problem with alcohol

Public health official Elizabeth Robinson. Photo courtesy of NHS Shetland.

AN NHS Shetland report into the islands’ relationship with drink has concluded that there is “overprovision” of supermarkets and off-licences selling alcohol within Lerwick.

The research, which will go before Shetland Islands Council’s licensing board sometime after next May’s local authority elections, found that more than a third of women and nearly half of men exceed the recommended amount of alcohol daily or weekly.

The 13-page report into the public health implications highlights how there are six pubs, one nightclub, 11 restaurants, six hotels, two supermarkets, 11 off sales or convenience stores, and two public halls within relatively concentrated areas of town.

Nearly a quarter of men and 15 per cent of women are categorised as binge drinkers, while more than 10 per cent of the adult population are defined as “problem” drinkers.

The report suggests reducing the hours during which drink can be bought from supermarkets and convenience stores in Lerwick as one possible solution.

NHS Shetland director of public health Susan Webb said there was a high concentration of licensed premises in main towns on Scottish islands which have “pockets of high availability”.

Contrary to national media reports at the weekend, NHS Shetland’s report does not contain any concrete proposals to block off-licence alcohol trading until 5pm each day. But health officials do believe ending the morning availability of alcohol could be beneficial.

A short section of the report summarises the views of users with an alcohol dependency. Some of them said restricting licensing hours so that sales were not permitted until the late afternoon or evening rather than from 10am could help them overcome their alcohol struggles.

Dr Webb’s report, published on 31 August, does recommend that the Shetland licensing board “moves to a clear and well thought out position where a smaller number of off-licences sell limited quantities of alcohol responsibly and at reasonable prices”.

“In particular, consideration should be given to eliminating the availability of low-cost alcohol through local supermarkets,” the report states. “This may require changes to the law, or it may require brave and challenging conditions to be developed by the licensing board.”

Public health official Elizabeth Robinson said looking at licensing hours was one of a number of suggestions that “came from people with alcohol problems themselves, and they’re people we often don’t hear from, and they’re among the most vulnerable people in Shetland”.

She said everyone knew someone whose alcohol problem had resulted in loss of employment, failed relationships and destroyed lives.

Robinson said the health board was seeking to “get some discussion going” about what to do to tackle Shetland’s alcohol problem, which is “not getting any better”.

She said it was possible to buy a bottle of cider from a supermarket containing 10 units of alcohol for just £1.99. The recommended limit is 14 units a week, meaning you could drink your fill for less than £3.

The Scottish Government’s planned introduction of minimum alcohol pricing “will be great”, Robinson continued, but there remains a concern about supermarkets – whereas Lerwick off licences such as Beervana and The Wine Shop already “sell really responsibly”.

Other suggestions include having a separate area within supermarkets for alcohol sales “so that if you’re trying to stay off alcohol, you don’t have to walk through the alcohol aisle to do your weekly shop”.

“Again, within the licensing act that is possible. In some places, like Norway, it’s only state-licensed shops that are able to sell alcohol above a certain strength,” Robinson added.

“What we want is for people to think about other options – the more accessible, the more it will be used.”

Scottish Parliament election, 6 May 2021