European alcohol policy has failed29 May 2012
The European Union has an alcohol problem: we drink an average of 12 to 13 litres of pure alcohol a year per person aged 15 and up, a quantity which has stayed constant over the past decade. This is partly because EU countries have deployed the wrong policy measures to reduce consumption in recent years. The focus has been mainly on education (for young people) and more ‘community action’, while little attention has been devoted to pricing and advertising policy, which research has shown to be more effective measures. This is argued by Professor Peter Anderson in his inaugural lecture on Wednesday 30 May, in assuming the position of Extraordinary Professor of Alcohol and Health at Maastricht University.
One in eight deaths (within the 15-64 age group) in Europe is linked to alcohol use. Alcohol also costs Europe a great deal of money: over and above the price we actually pay for drinks, the EU loses around 300 euros per person per year on lost productivity, healthcare costs and legal issues – costs which could better be saved in these times of economic crisis. Why is the EU not succeeding in reducing alcohol consumption?
According to Anderson, in recent years EU nations have placed a strong emphasis on the education of young people and ‘community action’ to reduce alcohol use. ‘Although these are important measures, it is in fact price increases and raising the threshold for obtaining alcohol, along with a ban on alcohol advertising, which influences drinking behaviour.’ Research has shown that less is consumed when alcohol becomes more expensive, even among heavy drinkers and those dependent on alcohol. The same applies when alcohol is more difficult to access (for example through fewer sales outlets and shorter opening hours) and when there is a ban on alcohol advertising.
Within price enforcement Anderson cites the introduction of a minimum price per gram of (pure) alcohol as the best measure, irrespective of the type of alcohol. Scientific studies suggest that among other things, these measures will lead to savings in (health) costs, a decline in criminality and enhanced productivity. They also exercise a more targeted effect on heavy drinkers, to a greater degree than tax increases. The alcohol industry also benefits, because profits rise.
Various obstacles hinder the appropriate deployment of policy measures within the EU. There still appears to be a lack of knowledge about alcohol and its risks. Alcohol is still not regarded and classified as a drug, even though it has the same biological and pharmaceutical characteristics as other drugs. Research has shown that alcohol is actually the most harmful drug for health and welfare. Both consumers and politicians underestimate and ignore the dangers of alcohol.
Anderson: ‘Clear statements need to be made to reduce this knowledge gap among policy-makers. The policy mistakes which have kept alcohol consumption so high in recent years, have resulted in 600,000 deaths (among those aged 15-64) which could have been prevented.’