Governments need to introduce more effective policies to tackle harmful drinking, according to a new report from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).
Levels of ‘hazardous and heavy episodic drinking’ are on the rise among young people and women across many OECD nations, states Tackling harmful alcohol use: economics and public health policy, and while overall consumption has fallen slightly over the last 20 years, drinking levels have risen ‘particularly’ in Finland, Iceland, Israel, Norway, Poland and Sweden. There have also beensubstantial increases in the Russian Federation, Brazil, India and China – albeit from low levels in the last two – with average annual alcohol consumption by adults in OECD countries now estimated at around 10 litres of pure alcohol per capita, the equivalent of more than 100 bottles of wine.
The report puts the blame on alcohol becoming ‘more available, more affordable and more effectively advertised’. Levels of alcohol consumption in the UK stand above the OECD average – at around 10.6 litres of pure alcohol per capita – and have increased over the last three decades, with almost 63 per cent of all alcohol drunk in England consumed by the heaviest-drinking 20 per cent of the population.
The report urges governments to introduce policies that target the heaviest drinkers first – such as using primary care staff to identify and encourage them to seek help – alongside financial measures such as minimum pricing and increased taxes. It also wants to see tougher advertising rules and better education.
Worldwide, alcohol misuse rose from the eighth to the fifth leading cause of death and disability in the 20 years to 2010, the document states, and now kills more people than HIV/Aids, tuberculosis and violence combined. ‘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. ‘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.’
Meanwhile, researchers at Liverpool John Moores University have identified that most alcohol consumption surveys dramatically under-estimate people’s drinking as they fail to account for ‘atypical’ occasions such as weddings and holidays. Including these would add more than 120m units per week, says the report, whereas the results of most surveys only account for around 60 per cent of the alcohol actually sold.
Tackling harmful alcohol use: economics and public health policy at www.oecd.org
Holidays, celebrations and commiserations: measuring drinking during feasting and fasting to improve national and individual estimates of alcohol consumption at www.biomedcentral.com