Booze still kills '20 people a week' in Scotland
Alcohol is still killing the equivalent of 20 people a week in Scotland despite a fall in booze-related deaths, it has been warned.
NHS Health Scotland called for further action to ensure that reductions in alcohol deaths continue. There were more than 1,000 recorded in 2012.
The organisation has published its third annual report on Scotland's alcohol strategy.
The Scottish government said the harm caused by alcohol was still too high.
Alcohol-related deaths and hospital discharge rates in Scotland have declined in recent years, but death rates are still twice what they were in the 1980s and higher than in England and Wales.
Alcohol sales also remained 19% higher than in England and Wales, driven by the purchase of more off-sales spirits, particularly vodka.
But new analysis also cited the economic downturn as a factor in alcohol affordability and the current decline in death rates and illness.
Despite improvements, NHS Health Scotland said women aged 25-44 years were not experiencing the same improvements in hospital discharge rates, particularly for alcoholic liver disease.
The report also noted that significant sales of cheap strong alcohol continued.
In 2012, 60% of alcohol sold in Scotland's supermarkets, shops and off licenses was sold at below 50p per unit, the initial level proposed by the Scottish government for minimum pricing.
Clare Beeston, principal public health adviser at NHS Health Scotland, said: "It is pleasing that overall alcohol related deaths rates are falling.
"However, there were still over 1,000 alcohol-related deaths in 2012, with the equivalent of 20 people dying every week as a direct result of alcohol. This is still too many.
"Furthermore, in the 12 months to end of March 2012, nearly 26,000 people were hospitalised at least once due to alcohol. It is also worrying that the rates of hospitalisation for women aged 25-44 years have been increasing recently."
Neil Craig, public health adviser at NHS Health Scotland and one of the report's authors, said the most deprived groups in Scotland experienced the biggest falls in deaths.
"Our findings suggest this may be because these groups experienced falls in income that started before the recession in 2007," he added.
"If so, as the economy picks up, recent reductions in sales and harms might not be sustained, especially if affordability starts to rise again after the recession."
Alcohol sales in Scotland have fallen by 8% over the past three years.
Speaking on BBC radio's Good Morning Scotland programme, Health Secretary Alex Neil attributed the fall in alcohol-related deaths and admissions to recent government policies.
He said this included the abolition of multi-buy promotions, and an increase in the use of Alcohol Brief Interventions - when health professionals speak directly to patients or clients and urge them to consider changing their drinking habits.
However, he said that until something was done about price "we won't crack this problem".
"There's very clear evidence here that there remains a very strong link between the price of alcohol and the consumption of alcohol, particularly cheap drinks that do so much harm to people," he said.
"It's about breaking that link, which is why we need minimum unit pricing."
The Scottish Parliament has passed legislation which seeks to introduce a minimum price of 50p per unit.
The plan has faced legal challenges from European wine and spirit producers and the Scotch Whisky Association.
Scottish Labour's public health spokesman Dr Richard Simpson said the Scottish government had "pinned all their hopes on minimum unit pricing which is currently languishing in the courts".
"We can't wait to see what happens so we are working on a members bill that would tackle alcohol abuse head on and we would encourage all concerned parties to back our proposals," he said.
He said the issue needed to be addressed with "a fully-rounded plan" that included tighter advertising controls, caffeine limits in pre-mixed drinks and a crackdown on those who buy alcohol for under-age drinkers.
Scottish Conservative health spokesman Jackson Carlaw said: "This report illustrates once again Scotland's grave relationship with alcohol.
"We need the Scottish government to lead from the front, with conviction, on this critical matter.
"It says it wants to try minimum pricing, something we supported, but nothing has happened since it was passed more than 500 days ago.
"The SNP has to come clean on what is happening with this initiative. If it has been dropped, now is the time to introduce other measures in its place, otherwise there will be a risk of even more deaths."
Meanwhile, the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA) is to launch a £500,000 action fund to tackle alcohol-related harm in Scottish communities.
The trade body said the move extended its commitment to addressing misuse and promoting responsible drinking.
A total of £100,000 will be made available each year until 2018 to projects run by charities and other organisations working to reduce alcohol-related harm.
SWA said the action fund would back projects delivering "targeted interventions" to tackle harm among young people aged 18 and under, families affected by misuse and "communities suffering as a result of irresponsible or excessive consumption of alcohol".