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12 May, Brussels – Today, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) has published its new report ‘Tackling Harmful Alcohol Use: Economics and Public Health Policy’, which analyses major trends in alcohol consumption in OECD countries. Following the statement on alcohol policy from EU Health Ministers and the European Parliament’s resolution calling for a new EU Alcohol Strategy on 21 and 29 April, pressure is mounting on the European Commission to take policy action on alcohol.

Alcohol-abuse is the leading risk factor for ill-health and premature death for the working age population (25-59 years) in Europe (1). The societal costs of alcohol use in Europe are in excess of €155 billion per year across the EU (2). Alcohol-related diseases across Europe claim 120,000 lives every year in the EU (3). The OECD study provides additional evidence of the huge socioeconomic and health burden of alcohol on OECD countries and demonstrates that governments’ ability to design and implement wide-ranging prevention strategies, combining the strength of different policy approaches, is critical to success.

Currently EU legislation is an obstacle to effective national policies to reduce alcohol related harm; alcohol enjoys exemptions from labelling requirements, vast quantities of public money is used to support wine producers within the framework of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) and 0% EU minimum tax rates prevail on wine. The Court of Justice of the EU is currently examining a case brought against Scotland’s plan to introduce minimum unit pricing (MUP), which has been shown to be effective in protecting the heaviest drinkers from over-consumption. The case was brought by spirits producers, claiming their rights to market access trump the rights of governments to enact health-protecting laws.

The OECD report shows that an effective package of alcohol policies, including economic measures such as MUP and taxes, as well as improved measures to stop drink-driving, can reduce the total costs to society by over 10% and that these savings would be achieved quickly. The measures are also extremely cost-effective, with short periods to regain the investment made by governments. The benefits to economies would be realised almost immediately – with quick results in terms of improving productivity and avoiding alcohol-related illnesses and disabilities.

The European Public Health Alliance (EPHA) (4) welcomes this new evidence on the effectiveness of different policy measures to reduce alcohol-related harm and costs to society and taxpayers (5). The OECD report shows that alcohol negatively affects OECD countries’ socioeconomic performances as productivity losses associated with harmful alcohol use are in the region of 5% of GDP in most countries. (6)

“The OECD is an organisation with impeccable economic credibility and so the modelling of health and economic impact of alcohol policy in this outstanding report deserves to be taken very seriously by governments around the world,“ says Professor Nick Sheron, EU Alcohol and Health Forum Representative at the Royal College of Physicians (UK), and EPHA Scientific advisor on alcohol.

The OECD study reaffirms the strong health inequality aspects of alcohol consumption (7). Addressing alcohol-related harm is crucial to reduce health inequalities, as the burden of disease and deaths related to alcohol are found to disproportionately affect the most deprived (8). Alcohol MUP – such as that proposed by the Scottish Government (9)- is one of the most effective ways for society to minimise the damage from alcohol consumption.

“Europeans are the heaviest drinkers in the world, which comes at a high cost to our health and economies. The evidence for policy action to tackle the harmful effects of alcohol is overwhelming. Technical fixes are already available and should be mandatory, such as alcolocks which would prevent up to 6,500 drink-driving deaths every year in the EU. That the EU currently blocks national governments from introducing effective measures, such as taxes, MUP or even proper labelling for consumers looks increasingly negligent and irresponsible,” commented Nina Renshaw, EPHA Secretary General.

Six facts on alcohol abuse

– Alcohol is the 3rd top risk factor in Europe for ill-health and NCDs such as cancer and cardiovascular disease.

– Alcohol is a toxic substance in terms of its direct and indirect effects on a wide range of body organs and a cause of some 60 diseases. Taking all diseases and injuries at global level into account, the negative health impact of alcohol consumption is 31.6 times higher than the benefit.

12 million people in the EU are dependent on alcohol.

– Around 9 million children in the EU are living with one parent addicted to alcohol.

1 of 4 road fatalities in EU is due to alcohol; in 2010 nearly 31,000 Europeans were killed on the roads and 25% of these deaths were related to alcohol.

– Alcohol is responsible for 1 in 7 male deaths and 1 in 13 female deaths in the group aged 15–64 years, resulting in approximately 120,000 premature deaths.

Notes to the editors

(1) Scientific Opinion of the Science Group of the European Alcohol and Health Forum (2011) Alcohol, Work and Productivity

(2) Rehm, J. et al (2012) Interventions for alcohol dependence in Europe: A missed opportunity to improve public health.

(3) WHO Status report on alcohol and health in 35 European countries 2013.

(4) The European Public Health Alliance (EPHA) is a change agent – Europe’s leading NGO advocating for better health.

(5) The OECD report says “Alcohol influences the development of a host of diseases and injuries. Harmful consumption of alcohol rose from eighth to fifth leading cause of death and disability, worldwide, between 1990 and 2010.”

(6) Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) report ‘Tackling Harmful Alcohol Use: Economics and Public Health Policy’, Page 28, line 16.

(7) The OECD study finds that “The majority of alcohol is drunk by the heaviest-drinking 20% of the population in the countries examined. Less educated and lower socioeconomic status (SES) men, as well as more educated and higher SES women, are more likely to indulge in risky drinking.”

(8) Herttua, K et al (2008) Changes in alcohol-related mortality.

(9) Joint press release] [Doctors take battle to implement “Scotland the brave’s” alcohol minimum unit price policy to Brussels.

Contact information

Zoltán Massay-Kosubek, EPHA Policy Coordinator for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention at zoltan@epha.org , or +32 (0) 2 233 3872

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