The Health Impacts

Diseases linked to alcohol

The harmful use of alcohol causes a large disease, social and economic burden in societies.

Alcohol consumption is a causal factor in more than 200 disease and injury conditions. Drinking alcohol is associated with a risk of developing health problems such as mental and behavioural disorders, including alcohol dependence, major noncommunicable diseases such as liver cirrhosis, some cancers and cardiovascular diseases, as well as injuries resulting from violence and road clashes and collisions.

The latest causal relationships are those between harmful drinking and incidence of infectious diseases such as tuberculosis as well as the incidence and course of HIV/AIDS. Alcohol consumption by an expectant mother may cause fetal alcohol syndrome and pre-term birth complications. (WHO Alcohol fact sheet 2018)

For most conditions in which alcohol is a factor, there is a dose-dependent relationship. That is, the more alcohol is consumed, the greater the risk of alcohol-related health harm.

There is no guaranteed safe level of alcohol consumption. 

Government guidelines in Scotland and the UK recommend no more than 14 units per week to keep the risk of health damage low.




Alcohol deaths

  • 1,136 alcohol-specific deaths* were registered in Scotland in 2018 - that's almost 22 per week
  • The main cause of such deaths is alcohol-related liver disease, accounting for 708 deaths (62%), followed by mental and behavioural disorders (320 deaths or 28%)
  • Alcohol-attributable deaths (AADs) include a further 30 causes of death which are partially caused by alcohol. Using this wider definition, there were an estimated 3,705 deaths attributable to alcohol in Scotland in 2015
  • Main causes of AADs for people under 35 are intentional self-harm, traffic accidents and poisoning
  • Main causes of AADs for people over 35 are alcohol-related liver disease, mental and behavioural disorders and breast/oesophageal cancers
  • Men are twice as likely to have an alcohol-specific death than women: 762 were male, 364 female
  • Most of these deaths occurred in men and women in their 50s and 60s, with the average age at death for men being 59.9 years and for women, 58 years
  • Those living in the most deprived areas were more than six times more likely to die an alcohol-related death than those living in the least deprived areas
  • You are twice as likely to die of an alcohol-related health problem in Scotland than in the rest of the UK
  • There were 38,370 alcohol-related stays in hospitals in Scotland in 2018-19. Alcohol-related admissions peaked at 855 per 100,000 population in 2007-8 after increasing for 30 years, but have declined to 669 per 100,000 in 2018 (Data from ISD, November 2019)

* Data from National Records of Scotland

Note: The definition used by the ONS changed from 'alcohol-related' deaths to 'alcohol-specific' deaths in 2017. This is a narrower definition, excluding cirrhosis deaths. Alcohol-attributable deaths would have included cancers, accidents, suicide and others (find out more).

Alcohol and Cancer

In October 2019, SHAAP released our updated version of Alcohol & Cancer Risks: A Guide for Health Professionals. The new guidance points out that more than a quarter of alcohol-attributable deaths are due to cancer. Drinking alcohol increases your risk of developing the following cancers of the: lip, oral cavity and pharynx; larynx; oesophagus; breast; colon and rectum; and the liver. There is also a relationship between alcohol and cancer of the stomach and there is some evidence that alcohol is associated with several other cancers, e.g. pancreatic cancer, lung cancer and melanoma. The  new report points to emerging research that draws links between alcohol and tobacco use; and also presents evidence that drinking alcohol can interfere with recovery from cancer.

The risks associated with cancer start from any level of regular drinking and rise with the amounts of alcohol being drunk. Information is provided for health staff to support their advice-giving on how to manage alcohol and reduce alcohol consumption. Recommendations are made for action to reduce alcohol consumption, both at the individual and population level:

  • Amongst health professionals there needs to be an increased understanding of the relative risks of consuming alcohol.
  • Low rates of awareness in public audiences may need information to be tailored to the specific needs of target groups.
  • Understanding and communicating “risk” is as much a challenge for professionals as the general public.
Hospital corridor

Dying for a drink coverFor more information on the impact of alcohol on mortality in Scotland, download SHAAP's report published September 2018.


Download the new report