GENEVA (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 Organization (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 recognized the importance of self-regulation by industry in helping to address alcohol abuse.
Its members recognized “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, the world’s largest alcoholic drinks group, and Anheuser-Busch InBev, the world’s largest brewer and maker of Budweiser, are among its members.
In a separate statement, brewing giant SABMiller 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 market.”
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 organizations — welcomed the WHO decision as historic and “long overdue.”
“The strategy highlights the effectiveness of focusing on policies regarding pricing, availability and marketing of alcohol,” it said in statement.
Editing by Jonathan Lynn and Mark Heinrich