National Records of Scotland

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Alcohol deaths

Alcohol deaths

Description Deaths which are counted as being due to alcohol
ISBN Web Only
Official Print Publication Web Only

Last Updated: 16 October 2018

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The number of deaths that may be due to alcohol can be calculated in various ways, using definitions which range from a ‘narrow’ one (which counts only those deaths which are wholly specific to alcohol – e.g. from alcoholic liver disease) to a ‘wide’ one (which includes deaths which may be only partially attributable to alcohol – e.g. from certain types of cancer). This section provides information on the number of deaths which are counted as being due to alcohol, on the basis of two National Statistics (NS) definitions (which may be referred to as the ‘new’ one and the ‘old’ one).  Some causes of death are counted by both definitions; others are counted by one definition but not by the other. These figures for alcohol deaths are based on the underlying cause of death from the death certificate, as explained in the ‘Alcohol deaths – Background’ page.

First, the new NS definition, which produces what may be described as the number of ‘alcohol-specific’ deaths. These are deaths which are known to be direct consequences of alcohol misuse, meaning they are wholly attributable to alcohol misuse. Such figures were first published in 2017, using a definition which was introduced following a consultation organised by the Office for National Statistics (ONS), more information about which is given in the ‘Alcohol deaths – Background’ page.  Because of the way in which they are defined, figures on this basis were at first are available only for the years from 2000. However, on 16 October 2018, following work by NHS Health Scotland, National Records of Scotland (NRS) extended the series available on this website back to 1979.

Second, the old NS definition, which produces what was described as the number of ‘alcohol-related’ deaths.  These are deaths from a selection of causes which are related to alcohol consumption.  Most of those causes are wholly attributable to alcohol misuse (i.e. medical conditions for which every death is caused by alcohol), but some are only partially attributable to alcohol misuse (i.e. medical conditions for which only a proportion of deaths are caused by alcohol).  This definition was introduced in 2006, and figures on this basis are available back to 1979.

The numbers produced using the two NS definitions show broadly similar patterns of change over the period from 2000 to 2016, with the new definition’s figures for Scotland tending to be very roughly 10% lower (the difference is between about 7% and around 12%, depending upon the year concerned), as can be seen from the chart which is available below. (Pre-2000, the two definitions’ figures appear to differ more, but still show broadly similar long-term trends.)  However, the pattern may be different for individual local authority and NHS Board areas, because they may have relatively few deaths which are counted as (a) 'alcohol-specific' but not 'alcohol-related' (e.g. alcohol-induced acute pancreatitis) and (b) 'alcohol-related' but not 'alcohol-specific' (e.g. fibrosis and cirrhosis of liver).  An area could have large percentage year to year fluctuations in its numbers for both (a) and (b), and so could have more deaths counted as 'alcohol-specific' than as 'alcohol-related' in those years for which its numbers for (a) were unusually large and its numbers for (b) were unusually small.  

It is expected that, henceforth, much more use will be made of the ‘new definition’ figures than of the ‘old definition’ figures.  However, NRS will continue to update the figures which are based on the old definition for at least a few years, for the benefit of those users of its statistics who wish to continue using them.  

It must be emphasised that neither set of figures includes all deaths which may be caused by alcohol- for example, the figures do not include deaths as a result of road accidents, falls, fires, suicide or violence involving people who had been drinking; or from some medical conditions which are considered partly attributable to alcohol, such as certain forms of cancer.  More information about this is given in the ‘Alcohol deaths – Background’ page.

A comparison of the two definitions from 2000 onwards

The total numbers (for Scotland as a whole, for the years from 2000) which are produced using the two definitions are compared in the chart which follows.

The files below have been made available as Excel spreadsheets and can be viewed in Comma Separated Value (CSV) or Adobe Acrobat Portable Document Format (PDF).

Alcohol deaths registered in Scotland:figures based on the old and new National Statistics definitions
(Excel    CSV    PDF)

The causes of death which are counted by the two definitions are compared in Table 1 of ‘The impact of using the new definition of alcohol-specific deaths’ , which was published by ONS on 27 October 2017: .


Alcohol specific deaths - New definition
Alcohol related deaths - Old definition

Note: age-standardised alcohol-related death rates are available from the Age-standardised Death Rates section of this website.

A list of common definitions and acronyms used in these pages is available on our Glossary page.

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