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OECD outlines action for governments to tackle heavy cost of harmful drinking

Harmful drinking is on the rise among young people and women in many OECD countries, partly due to alcohol becoming more available, more affordable and more effectively advertised, according to a new OECD report.

Tackling Harmful Alcohol Use: Economics and Public Health Policy says that the increase of risky drinking behaviours is a worrying trend as it is associated with higher rates of traffic accidents and violence, as well as increased risk of acute and chronic health conditions. The report shows that several policies have the potential to reduce heavy drinking, regular or episodic, as well as alcohol dependence. Governments seeking to tackle binge drinking and other types of alcohol abuse can use a range of policies that have proven to be effective, including counselling heavy drinkers, raising taxes, raising prices, increasing the regulation of the marketing of alcoholic drinks and stepping up enforcement of drinking-and-driving laws.

“The cost to society and the economy of excessive alcohol consumption around the world is massive, especially in OECD countries,” said OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurría, launching the report in Paris. ”This report provides clear evidence that even expensive alcohol abuse prevention policies are cost-effective in the long run and underlines the need for urgent action by governments.”

Today, alcohol consumption by adults in OECD countries is estimated at an average of around 10 litres of pure alcohol per capita each year, equivalent to over 100 bottles of wine. This level has fallen slightly over the past two decades overall but has particularly risen in Finland, Iceland, Israel, Norway, Poland and Sweden. Consumption has also risen substantially in the Russian Federation, Brazil, India and China, although from low levels in the last two.

Most alcohol is drunk by the heaviest-drinking 20 per cent of the population. Rates of hazardous and heavy episodic drinking in young people, especially women, have increased in many OECD countries: the share of children under 15 who have been drunk jumped from 30% to 43% for boys and from 26% to 41% among girls during the 2000s. Overall, less educated men are more likely to indulge in heavy drinking while the opposite is true for women where the better educated are more prone to heavy drinking.

Alcohol abuse ranks as one of the leading causes of death and disability, killing more people worldwide than HIV/AIDS, violence and tuberculosis combined. Between 1990 and 2010, harmful drinking rose from eighth to fifth leading cause of death and disability worldwide.

An analysis of the impact of alcohol abuse prevention policies in Canada, Czech Republic and Germany reveals that taking action can reduce rates of heavy drinking and alcohol dependence by five to 10 per cent.

Policies should target heavy drinkers first. For instance, through primary care physicians who can identify harmful drinkers and persuade them to start dealing with the issue; and through a tougher enforcement of drinking-and-driving laws to cut traffic casualties.

But broader approaches may also sometimes be needed to complement these measures, including by raising costs, for example through increased taxes, or by imposing minimum prices on cheaper alcohol. Greater regulation of alcohol advertising and increasing investment on educating young people on the dangers of harmful alcohol use is also important. Initiatives promoted by the alcohol industry may also have a role to play but more independent evidence of their impact is needed.

Eurocare welcomes the OECD Report “Tackling Harmful Alcohol Use” and its strong alcohol policy recommendations.

Mariann Skar, Secretary General of the European Alcohol Policy Alliance, says: “Today OECD has presented a strong message to European Governments, the European Commission and the public health community. Even the most expensive interventions like health care and work place interventions are cost-effective and will give both an economic and health benefit when implemented. Most alcohol policies are not expensive to implement and leads to great health and economic benefits. Furthermore, the report shows the importance of addressing broad policy approaches such as price and marketing in addition to policies addressing only the ones who drink most”.

The report comes in a time of great discussions on alcohol policies in the European Union. In April 2015, the European Health Ministers agreed on the need for common EU Alcohol Policies and addressed the need for more developments from the European Commission. Later the same month, the European Parliament adopted a resolution calling for a new EU Alcohol Strategy. These calls are both responds to the lack of new initiatives presented by the European Commission after the previous EU Alcohol Strategy technically expired in 2012. The OECD report gives important knowledge to the discussion and policy recommendations to the Member States and the European Commission in their upcoming initiatives addressing alcohol related harm.

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