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Governments must do more to fight alcohol harm says OECD

Even expensive interventions are cost-effective in cutting rates of heavy drinking and dependence

Louise Prime

Wednesday, 13 May 2015

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development has warned of a worrying increase in risky drinking behaviours across OECD countries that is associated with higher rates of traffic accidents and violence, as well as increased risk of acute and chronic health conditions, and it has urged governments to do more to tackle the problem. The OECD also reported that alcohol consumption in the UK has increased over the past 30 years and the level is now higher than in many other OECD countries; however, the proportion of men and women in England who binge drink has fallen over the past few years, as has the proportion of young teenagers in England who’ve ever had a drink.

In Tackling harmful alcohol use: economics and public health policy, the OECD estimated that in 2011, an average of 10.6 litres of pure alcohol per capita was consumed in the UK, compared with 9.5 litres for the OECD as a whole. It said that, in the UK, the proportion of 15 year olds who have experienced alcohol increased from 71% in 2002 to 75% in 2010. But other data, for England alone, had found that the proportion of English pupils (aged 11-15) who had ever had a drink fell from 61% to 51% between 2001 and 2009.

The report’s authors noted that in the UK, which has relatively high levels of taxation for all types of alcoholic beverages, there are large socio-economic disparities in hazardous drinking rates. In England, both men and women with high education are more likely to be hazardous drinkers than their less educated counterparts; whereas across the OECD as a whole, less educated men and better educated women are more likely to indulge in heavy drinking.

Across the OECD, most alcohol is drunk by the heaviest-drinking 20% of the population, and the same is true of England, where this group accounts for almost 63% of all alcohol consumed. Yet, in England, there has been a reduction in the proportion of men and women who binge drink (ie consume more than twice the NHS guidelines) – 15% of men and women in 2013, compared with 19% in 2006.

The OECD blamed the general rise in consumption partly on alcohol becoming more available, more affordable and more effectively advertised. But it pointed out that several policies have the potential to reduce heavy drinking, whether regular or episodic, as well as alcohol dependence, and it urged governments to use a range of those measures proven to be effective. It said an analysis of the impact of alcohol abuse prevention policies in Canada, Czech Republic and Germany had revealed that taking action can reduce rates of heavy drinking and alcohol dependence by 5-10%. It recommended that the heaviest drinkers are targeted first – for example GPs identifying harmful drinkers and encouraging them to start dealing with their problem and tougher enforcement of drink-driving laws – but said other approaches are sometimes needed, such as increasing taxation or imposing minimum unit pricing.

OECD secretary general Angel Gurría said: “The cost to society and the economy of excessive alcohol consumption around the world is massive, especially in OECD countries. This report provides clear evidence that even expensive alcohol abuse prevention policies are cost-effective in the long run and underlines the need for urgent action by governments.”

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