THE festive period is one we see as a time for indulgence - and the sight of booze and alcohol brands can be difficult to escape from.

It’s not just the wine, spirits and boxes of beer on the shelves, but the Bailey’s cream, the brandy mince pies and the champagne-flavoured chocolates all contribute to a sophisticated system of alcohol marketing.

For those recovering from alcohol problems, it is admittedly the hardest time of the year, fighting a societal pressure that alcohol is required to partake in festivities.

And this time of the year is an acute example of why Tom Bennett – who has been in recovery for 13 years and now works for the Scottish Recovery Consortium – believes Scotland must lead the way in the UK and bring in statutory regulations on alcohol advertising.

“There is such a strong association between Christmas and booze - and the alcohol industry has created that,” Bennett (below) said.

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“Chocolates, baked goods, all sorts of foodstuffs are laced with booze - and the frequency of television advertising increases in the run-up to Christmas.

“Alcohol marketing is almost impossible to avoid anyway but there is an absolute saturation at this time of year. It’s the highest-risk period of the year for people in recovery.

“We really want the Scottish Government to lead the way [on reducing alcohol marketing]. They need to be taking seriously the advice they’re getting about reducing marketing and making sure the alcohol industry has no part to play in public health discussions because there’s a real conflict of interest there.”

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Alison Douglas, chief executive of Alcohol Focus Scotland, described the festive period of Christmas and Hogmanay as “hugely problematic” for people in recovery.

“We’re encouraged to think [alcohol is] an essential part of the festive season,” she told the Sunday National.

“People can feel as if they are outsiders when they don’t drink, and then it’s a time when you can be particularly conscious of not being in touch with family and friends too.

“We all give ourselves permission to have a complete blowout. It feels like it’s all dialled up at Christmas [alcohol consumption and adverts]. Alcohol is that essential lubricant and that social glue for people.”

The Scottish Government is set to hold more talks with public health stakeholders and the alcohol industry in the New Year to discuss ways of limiting young people’s exposure to alcohol after carrying out an initial consultation on restricting promotions.

A report showed the majority of organisations with links to the industry insisted regulations were disproportionate to the scale of the problem but there were high levels of approval for controls on marketing from public health bodies.

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For Bennett and Douglas, the urgency of the situation could not be more obvious. The Scottish Health Survey showed 16 to 24-year-olds have increased their drinking since 2019 by a staggering 55% and now drink more than any other age group.

Meanwhile, people who drink at higher levels are continuing to drink more than they did pre-pandemic, consuming an average of 32.9 units per week in 2022 compared to 30.9 units per week before the pandemic.

That’s all on top of 1276 alcohol-specific deaths being registered last year – the highest figure in 14 years.

Douglas said: “We are heading back to a record number of deaths.

“The industry’s argument is it’s a small group letting the rest of us down, but actually - given it's 23% of the population exceeding-low risk guidelines - this is not a marginal problem.

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“It’s not for the alcohol industry to say what is effective in terms of alcohol policy. It’s legitimate for them to put forward information about how in practice it might affect their business, but they need to provide some evidence of those claims.”

The festive period is also an illustration of how clever the industry is getting with what Bennett describes as “marketing by stealth” in a climate of self-regulation - where ­industry-funded organisations are ­responsible for ­developing codes with the ­advertising industry about what alcohol promotions should contain.

He says the amount of food items with alcohol in them has increased, meaning more and more booze brands are on display outside of the alcohol aisle in supermarkets.

“I was in the supermarket the other day and I found it wasn’t that straightforward to find any  mince pies without booze in,” he said.

“Then I wanted to buy some cream and there were about five that had Baileys or brandy in them. I don’t remember it ever being that bad before.”

In 2018, Scotland introduced a world-leading policy of minimum unit pricing which, despite a huge backlash from the industry – including a legal challenge from the Scotch Whisky Association – has now been proven to have achieved its main goal of reducing harm, while there is no clear evidence of substantial negative impacts on the drinks industry.

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But the effect of the policy is being eroded by inflation. The Scottish Government is looking at uprating it from 55p to 65p, but campaigners know on its own it will not be enough to seriously change the relationship Scotland has with drink.

Modelling from the University of Sheffield has found that even if alcohol consumption returned to pre-pandemic levels in 2023, an estimated 663 more people will die and there will be 8653 additional hospital admissions linked to alcohol - costing the NHS £10.9 million - by 2040. 

Douglas said she hopes the Scottish Government can make significant progress in the new year to protect those most at risk from alcohol harm.

She said: “We’re asking for three things in particular - one is restrictions in stores and taking alcohol out of mixed retail into a separate area, controls on sponsorship of sports and events, and outdoor marketing.

“I hope that in the next 12 months, we can have some concrete proposals to ensure we reduce exposure to children and young people and protect people who have had an alcohol problem and start to de-normalise alcohol consumption as part of everyday life and an essential part of how we bond with friends and family.”

The Scottish Government has said it is determined to reduce harm caused by alcohol while minimising any impacts on Scotland’s world-class drinks industry or tourism sector and will continue to engage with all interested parties on specific proposals “that meet our aims”.