GENEVA, May 20 (Reuters) – Health ministers agreed on
Thursday to try to curb binge drinking and other growing forms
of excessive alcohol use through higher taxes on alcoholic
drinks and tighter marketing regulations. The global strategy to reduce the harmful use of alcohol was
adopted by consensus at the annual assembly of the World Health
Organisation (WHO). Its 10 main policy recommendations, drawn up after two years
of negotiation, are not binding but serve as guidance to WHO's
193 member states.
"Alcohol contributes to accidents, mental health problems,
social problems and harms third parties," said Bernt Bull, a
senior advisor in Norway's health ministry. Nordic countries,
many of which already have tight restrictions on alcohol sales,
spearheaded the initiative at the United Nations agency.
A relatively high excise tax on alcoholic beverages and
regulations limiting their availability was helping to reduce
alcohol-related diseases in Norway, he said. The WHO estimates that risks linked to alcohol cause 2.5
million deaths a year from heart and liver disease, road
accidents, suicides and various cancers — 3.8 percent of all
deaths. It is the third leading risk factor for premature deaths
and disabilities worldwide.
"Alcohol is usually not perceived as a killer, though it
is," Shekhar Saxena, director of WHO's department of mental
health and substance abuse, told a news briefing.
Despite growing abuse and youth drinking at an earlier age
in many countries, half of WHO members do not have a national
alcohol policy, according to WHO expert Vladimir Poznyak.
"The biggest changes might happen in those countries which
have no alcohol control institutions or regulatory framework for
alcohol consumption," he told reporters.
The Global Alcohol Producers Group noted the strategy
recognised the importance of self-regulation by industry in
helping to address alcohol abuse. Its members recognised "the harmful effects of irresponsible
drinking patterns" and would continue efforts to promote
self-regulation of advertising as well as curbs on drink driving
and illegal underage and excessive drinking, a statement said. Britain's Diageo (DGE.L), the world's largest alcoholic
drinks group, and Anheuser-Busch InBev (ABI.BR), the world's
largest brewer and maker of Budweiser, are among its members. In a separate statement, brewing giant SABMiller (SAB.L)
gave a cautious welcome to the plan, but warned:
"SABMiller is unconvinced there is sufficient evidence to
support policy options such as minimum pricing and high excise
taxes that may result in unintended, negative public health
consequences which stem from the growth of the illicit alcohol
The WTO strategy document says the harmful use of alcohol
has a serious effect on public health and is one of the main
risk factors for poor health globally. There is strong evidence that a low limit for blood alcohol
concentration (0.02 to 0.05 percent) is effective in reducing
drink-driving casualties, it says.
It underlined the importance of a legal framework for
restricting the sale and serving of alcohol, a minimum age for
buying drinks and "mandated health warnings" on alcohol labels. Setting a minimum price per unit gram of alcohol has been
shown to reduce consumption and alcohol-related harm, it said. But overly tight restrictions on alcohol availability may
promote the development of a parallel illicit market, it warned.
The Global Alcohol Policy Alliance — a coalition of medical
professionals, researchers and non-governmental organisations —
welcomed the WHO decision as historic and "long overdue".