spiritsNEWS September 2022

Reducing harmful alcohol consumption: why some of the existing approaches may not be the panacea policy-makers have been hoping for

Europe’s Beating Cancer Plan is a prominent example of the European Union’s ambition to influence public health policies across the continent.

The Plan is now in its implementation phase, and the European Parliament adopted a report earlier this year on strengthening the fight against cancer that could have wide-ranging implications in many sectors.

The report’s general focus on harm reduction demonstrates a growing intent by European policymakers to address public health challenges. While the motives are laudable, the search for the most effective and efficient harm reduction measures has only just begun. Yet getting these right is mission-critical if we aim to truly tackle the underlying problems.

The treatment of harmful alcohol consumption in the plan is a case in point. Bearing in mind the broad policy approaches suggested in the plan and in related initiatives, such as the World Health Organization’s (WHO) Global Alcohol Action Plan 2022-2030, further debate is needed to ensure that implementing measures are driven by the latest science – and are sure to succeed in practice.

The solution that isn’t one

Blunt, untargeted measures such as excessive or discriminatory excise duties will hardly drive meaningful progress to resolve the public health challenges caused by harmful alcohol consumption. By contrast, targeted approaches based on real-life data and our experiences from the past will. 

Price measures have long been one of the most popular alcohol-related policy initiatives proposed by the WHO and national governments. Hinging on the belief that the higher the price of a product, the lower the quantity demanded, various measures such as bans on the sale of low-cost alcohol have been introduced in numerous countries.

However, the effectiveness and efficiency of such price measures is doubtful, especially when applied to individual consumer groups. While moderate consumers of alcohol are indeed impacted by pricing, heavy drinkers across Europe seem far more unresponsive to such efforts.

At best, long-term data shows that per capita alcohol consumption appears to be weakly related to the affordability of alcoholic beverages.

For instance, despite nearly doubling their spending power over the last 50 years, per capita alcohol consumption in Sweden has not increased over that period. From 2004 to 2019, alcohol consumption, as well as heavy drinking, actually declined. More likely, this shift in drinking patterns appears to coincide with the Swedes’ growing tolerance towards balancing moderate alcohol consumption with healthy lifestyles.

Learning from the past to change the future

Despite advances in data collection and what proponents of analytical models would have us believe, immense variability across regions and time means that evidence provided by analytical forecasting models on alcohol control is often unreliable.

This failure is principally due to forecasting models not being able to reflect the complexities for the real world. From Scandinavia to Mediterranean countries, the failure to properly assess theoretical and empirical data through the lens of historical, demographic and socio-cultural trends will lead to erroneous conclusions and potentially counterproductive policies.

Tackling harmful alcohol consumption

Over the past years, alcohol consumption has been declining in Europe. Compared to 2003, overall alcohol consumption has fallen by 22% and declined in nearly every EU Member States, with welcome reductions in the prevalence of certain harmful consumption patterns such as heavy episodic drinking.

These encouraging figures should serve as a platform for the acceleration and reinforcement of policies that support these changes and which have led every age group to drinking more responsibly and less overall.

However, policymaking cannot take place in a vacuum and we simply cannot propose the same broad solutions to Sweden and Italy given their different economies, demographies as well as cultural and historical relationships with alcohol consumption.

We can further support progress by implementing targeted strategies that base their recommendations on a strong understanding of empirical data and the socio-cultural specificities of individual countries.

At this stage, it is clear that such targeted measures do exist. Yet it is also clear that some of the broad policy measures proposed may, in fact, be far less effective and efficient in reducing alcohol-related harm in real life than previously thought.

A healthy and balanced lifestyle can be combined with moderate alcohol consumption, as practiced by the vast majority of drinkers. At the same time, those at risk need to supported and shielded from harm. Targeted approaches based on real-life data and our experiences from the past appear to be the most effective and efficient way forward to achieve further progress in the years ahead.

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