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By Alexandra Kaczmarek, Eurocare

There is a casual relationship between the harmful use of alcohol and heart diseases, cancers, liver diseases, mental health disorders and other noncommunicable conditions. Approximately 5.9% of all deaths worldwide were attributable to alcohol in 2012, more than half caused by non-communicable diseases (NCDs).

In the EU alone in 2014, 72,000 deaths due to alcohol-related diseases could have been avoided. Globally, it is estimated that 5.1% of the global burden of disease as measured in disability-adjusted life-years (DALYs) is attributed to alcohol consumption, mainly through, cancers and cardiovascular and gastrointestinal diseases.

The Sustainable Development Goals Agenda recognises alcohol as an important factor “in preventing healthy lives and the promotion of well-being for all”, with the inclusion of target 3.5 to strengthen the prevention and treatment of substance abuse, including the harmful use of alcohol.

The World Health Organization identifies the following priority actions for alcohol policy in the so called- ‘Best Buys’:

  • Using taxation to help regulate demand for alcoholic beverages
  • Restrictions on the availability of alcoholic beverages
  • Comprehensive restrictions or bans on alcohol advertising.

Unfortunately, not many politicians are buying the ‘Best Buys’. Despite being one of the main risk factors for NCDs, alcohol remains the least regulated. For a review of policies in place please have a look at Eurocare’s 2016 review of alcohol policies for Europe

Apart from individual Member States taking actions (i.e. Estonia, Lithuania, Ireland, Finland) there is little, if not, any movement or willingness to improve alcohol policy provisions. In fact, the EU’s Eurostat monitoring report on SDGs under target 3, does not mention alcohol as a health determinant. The EU’s infographic draws attention to issues such as ‘disturbance by noise’, but not one of the leading risk factors for NCDs – alcohol consumption. Just as a reminder the SDGs global target for alcohol is at least 10% relative reduction in the harmful use of alcohol, as appropriate, within the national context by 2025.

Moreover, in the recent revision of the Audiovisual Media Services Directive (AVMSD), the only EU wide piece of legislation referring to alcohol advertising, European politicians did not grasp the opportunity to improve provisions for alcohol advertising. Instead AVMSD continuously promotes self-regulation and co-regulation. Researchers have consistently documented the failure of self-regulatory codes when it comes to alcohol advertising. It is puzzling why European legislators have chosen to promote self-regulation throughout the AVMSD so boldly, without noticing the nuances of specific provisions.

Alcohol policy seems to be the most politicised of all the NCD risk factors, and is often the most difficult to address, the most left behind, with wine and spirits industries in the EU  using delaying tactics, to avoid providing even basic information such as nutritional value and ingredients listings on their product labels.

To achieve SDGs target 3.5, it appears one needs not only a good promotion campaign for ‘Best Buys,’ but the political will to make them happen. Alcohol policy is complex and highly politicised, requires a lot of perseverance, but that does not mean it should be left behind in the NCD agenda.

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