The harmful use of alcohol causes immense damage to health and societies and imposes a heavy burden on health systems and health budgets.
Alcohol can be a killer. WHO estimates that the harmful use of alcohol is responsible for around 3.3 million deaths worldwide each year.
Alcohol can kill slowly, as it gradually contributes to diseases like cirrhosis of the liver and cancer at several sites. Harmful drinking is also a major risk factor for cardiovascular disease.
Alcohol can kill quickly, sometimes instantly, when it contributes to road traffic crashes, injuries, poisoning, violence, violent crime, and suicide.
Alcohol use can lead to the development of alcohol dependence and a range of neuropsychiatric disorders.
Through various mechanisms, it increases the risks of infectious diseases, like tuberculosis and HIV, and has a negative impact on their treatment outcomes.
Alcohol consumption during pregnancy can cause permanent physical and mental damage to the developing fetus resulting in a range of health conditions known as Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders.
Preventive action is deeply desired by many governments, many civil society organizations, and many millions of people around the world who have seen lives, families, careers, and communities devastated or destroyed by the harmful use of alcohol.
Like many other societal problems, the harmful use of alcohol has multiple dimensions and contributing factors that extend well beyond the health sector.
Depending on the national context, efforts to protect populations from the harmful use of alcohol can require support from fiscal policies, trade policies, the judicial system, law enforcement, and government ministries responsible for youth, road safety, consumer affairs, and commerce.
All countries wishing to introduce or strengthen alcohol policies have a powerful instrument to assist them: the Global Strategy to Reduce the Harmful Use of Alcohol, approved by the World Health Assembly in 2010.
The strategy sets out a menu of policy options and supporting interventions that each country can draw on to craft effective and affordable policies that match distinct national problems and priorities, as expressed in distinct cultural and religious contexts.
The strategy was developed during wide-ranging negotiations and consultations that lasted nearly three years. Its unanimous endorsement was a landmark for public health, WHO, and governments concerned about the harm that alcohol consumption can cause.
The menu of options is organized around ten areas recommended for targeted action, ranging from community action, to responses within health services, to a number of regulatory measures. Regulatory measures are particularly effective in preventing deaths and injuries from drink-driving, constraining the availability of alcohol, and reducing the impact of marketing, especially on young people.
Ways of countering the problems of illicit alcohol and home-made brews are also covered.
Increasing the price of alcoholic beverages is one of the most effective preventive interventions.
Unfortunately, alcohol consumption is expanding in precisely those countries that lack the regulatory and enforcement capacities to protect their populations.
The WHO Global Information System on Alcohol and Health, integrated with the Global Health Observatory, provides regularly updated information on alcohol consumption, its health consequences, and policy responses at global, regional and country levels.
On the positive side, the research that supports the strategy shows that strong alcohol policies work.
A reduction in the density of stores selling alcohol has been shown, over time, to reduce rates of child maltreatment and drink-driving. Having fewer outlets has also been linked to fewer traffic crashes and pedestrian injuries.
Restrictions on the times when alcohol is available have an impact.
In one city in Australia, late-night assaults declined by nearly 40 per cent when closing hours for alcohol purchase were turned back modestly.
In a city in Brazil with one of the highest murder rates in the country, the introduction of restrictions on alcohol availability was followed by a 44 per cent decline in murders.
In short, national alcohol policies are needed, desired, entirely feasible, and highly effective. They are also feared and fought by the alcohol industry.
In the view of WHO and many others, the formulation of alcohol policies is the sole prerogative of national health officials and regulatory authorities.
Policies shaped by industry consistently fail to include those measures proven by the evidence and endorsed by WHO to have the greatest impact. (UNI)