In terms of heath, alcohol-related harms have long been a sensitive topic. However, we must understand that whenever one raises the topic of alcohol, one will inevitably get into all sorts of quagmires. Still, the harm alcohol causes is undeniable. Compared to other major non-communicable disease risk factors, such as tobacco-use, a relatively high proportion of alcohol-related harm occurs early in the life course. The WHO European region struggles with one of the highest levels of alcohol-related deaths: alcohol kills approximately 2345 people per day and that is an inevitable fact. How can we tackle this? What are the potential solutions we can take?
Carina Ferreira-Borges, who is the Programme Manager Alcohol and Illicit Drugs at the WHO European Office for Prevention and Control of NCDs, reminded us that we need to rethink and re-challenge our current direction with alcohol. The European Union region have the highest level of alcohol consumption. The WHO identified three ‘Best Buys’, actions for alcohol policy. The first Best Buy deals with increasing the price of alcohol through taxation. The second focuses on limiting alcohol availability though for example restrictions on the time alcohol is available in stores. Lastly, Best Buy suggests restrictions on marketing, either by reducing or banning it all together. Unfortunately, it has been very troublesome in getting European countries on board of these Best Buys.
Alcohol-related harm does not happen in a vacuum. Alcohol alone affects 13 of the Sustainable Development Goals and 52 targets. There is a relationship between the harmful use of alcohol and heart diseases, cancer, liver diseases, mental health disorders and other non-communicable diseases. Alcohol-related harm brings direct costs to the household in terms of poverty, loss of job or unemployment. The European Union is faced with massive costs, approximately €156 billion yearly, by alcohol alone.
Rethinking and strengthening implementation may take more than just regulations and laws. We need to rethink the concepts we take for granted. For example, more than half of the male drinkers between 15-64 years have engaged in heavy episodic drinking in 2016. We need to think about the social aspect of alcohol. During the group work sessions, one point seemed to come across in most of the tables: we need to change how people think of alcohol in terms of socializing. How can we disrupt the norm of drinking when going out with friends, when we find ourselves thinking we need that glass of wine in our hand to be a part of a group? How do we strip our minds from the social norm of alcohol being present in sports events? The groups tried to come up with solutions such as incentivizing alcohol-free events to cover their losses. It was also recognized that alcohol policies should be Europe-wide, because if it is possible, people will travel for alcohol. This is not true only in terms of bordering countries, but for example, in Scandinavia young high schoolers go on cruises to Estonia or Sweden with the sole purpose of drinking.
Coming from Finland, I cannot help but to mirror experiences in other countries to my own status quo. Even though restrictions on advertising alcohol, selling alcohol during certain hours and tax on alcohol are in place in Finland, according to the Finnish Institute for Health and Welfare, 78% of alcohol consumption in 2016 can be classified under the category of harmful use of alcohol. Personally, I do not consume alcohol for religious reasons. However, I do sense a slight change in drinking culture nowadays. Non-alcoholic drinks seem to be more available. This change would not have come if enough people were not demanding alcohol-free beverages. In other words, there is power in masses, we are the keys to the changes we need to see.
In order to reduce and eventually eliminate alcohol-related problems, we need to change not only individuals and societies, but also companies. During the panel discussion, we heard how Heineken bought Slovenian breweries, and in no less than two weeks Heineken suggested a legislation change in Slovenia. Furthermore, there is a dire need to put Best Buys in the agendas of governments. NGOs might be more willing to adopt these actions, but they need assistance from each one of us since changing how we view alcohol is certainly not an easy task.
This Blog was written by Young Gasteiner Idil Hussein