A LICENSING chief has called for more detailed evidence from NHS Highland about alcohol abuse if any moves to restrict the number of pubs, hotels and shops selling drink in the region are to be made.
The health authority delivered a stark warning to the Highland Licensing Board last week about alarming alcohol related hospital admittance figures and believes there are too many licenced premises which contribute to the problem.
NHS figures from 2007 and 2009 showed that the rate of people being taken to hospital was considerably higher than the national average of 1088 per 100,000 people in huge swathes of the region including parts of Inverness, Ross-shire, Lochaber, Caithness and Sutherland.
The board agreed to carry out a major consultation which could take more than 18 months on whether there are too many licensed premises but chairwoman Maxine Smith said there were shortcomings in the NHS’s information and warned it was too simplistic to lay the blame solely on licenced premises.
“The gaps are in the fields of why there is an alcohol problem in any particular area,” she said. “It cannot be argued without any doubt that the sole responsibility for health harm related to alcohol are because there are too many licensed premises in that area, without taking into account other issues such as social deprivation, demographics, other leisure pursuits available and so on.”
Councillor Smith said it was vital that as much evidence from a range of organisations is gathered before any decisions on over-provision were taken.
“It will be hard to firstly get all the data but we need to try and do our best to achieve at last a large percentage of the evidence we require to make an informed decision.”
Asked if she thought there were too many pubs and premises selling alcohol in the Highlands, the Ross-shire councillor was non-comittal.
“What I think doesn’t matter at this stage, as I will base any decision on the evidence put before the board in due course.
“I do think it’s healthy for people to have a diverse range and choice of activity and its also important to take into account the freedom of people to choose alternative venues, plus reasonable competition is healthy and helps provide better quality.”
Dr Margaret Somerville, director of public health, accepted the health authority could improve the data it had provided so far.
“We’re aware that information could be refined and include a wider range of data, that might make it much more helpful for the licensing board to make decisions that take the public health objective into account,” she said.
“However, we’re unable to comment in detail on how this might look as we are only just starting the work.”
The consultation will also seek information from the police and fire brigade on factors like alcohol related deaths and crime including assaults, domestic abuse and fire statistics. Any child welfare incidents linked to drink will also be assessed.
In 12 out of the 22 Highland Council wards, the number of people admitted to hospital with alcohol related conditions was significantly above the Scottish average.