After tobacco, public health bodies turn up the heat on alcohol


Alcohol is killing us. And, governments need to get its their together. This is a message from the World Health Organisation. The international public health body has just released a new roadmap called 'SAFER', which it says will help countries, including India, tailor policies to control alcohol consumption.

SAFER is an acronym for the steps that the WHO is now advocating—Strengthening restrictions on availability; Advancing and enforcing measures to curb drunk driving; Facilitating access to screening and treatment; Enforcing bans on advertising, sponsorship and promotion activities; and Raising prices through excise taxes and pricing policies.

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International public health bodies such as the WHO, Vital Strategies and NCD Alliance say the focus has to be on the low and middle income countries (including India) where alcohol is being marketed more vigorously. “We see that alcohol markets in the West are saturated and alcohol producers are looking for new markets in low and middle-income countries,” says Øystein Bakke, Secretary of the Global Alcohol Policy Alliance. “These markets, with a young population and growing economies, often lack the regulatory framework necessary to check a trajectory of increasing alcohol consumption,” she said.

Drinking has a huge impact on health, with at least seven types of cancer (such as colon and breast) being linked to it. Each year, more than three million people in the world die because of drinking, and over five per cent of the global burden of disease and injury is related to alcohol consumption, according to the WHO Global Status Report (GSR) on Alcohol and Health, 2018, that was released recently. The report also said countries such as India and China were at a greater risk because of the rise in consumption—alcohol per capita consumption went up from 2.4 litres in 2005 to 5.7 litres in 2016.

Though the rates of drinking are higher among Europeans and Americans and those in the Western Pacific, future projections suggest that the increase in global consumption will be attributed to highly populated countries such as India and China, Western Pacific regions and the region of the Americas.

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“We have seen too little progress since the endorsement of the ‘Global strategy to reduce the harmful use of alcohol’ by the World Health Assembly, eight years ago. But SAFER brings new impetus for action,” said WHO assistant director-general Svetlana Axelrod in a statement to the press. “We encourage countries to take action, monitor their progress, and protect alcohol policy development from interference by commercial interests,” said Svetlana.

According to the WHO, some countries have already implemented and enforced policies to reduce alcohol consumption. In the US, for instance, states that increased the legal alcohol consumption age to 21 saw a 16 per cent median decline in motor vehicle crashes. In Brazil, reducing the opening hours of bars from 24 hours to closing down at 11 pm was associated with a 44 per cent drop in homicides.

Alcohol is also part of the Sustainable Development Goals, where the global community has committed to 17 goals with 169 targets by 2030. It also significantly impacts several other SDG health goals such as reducing premature deaths from noncommunicable diseases (NCDs) by one-third by 2030, traffic-related mortality, and TB, says WHO.