Alcohol-related harm is a public health issue, not a lifestyle choice

 

The numbers are staggering. Yet, amidst a blizzard of advertising and misinformation, most people don’t realize that alcohol is one of the world’s leading killers. Across the globe, approximately 3 million people each year die from alcohol-related causes.

Many people are aware of the toll of alcohol-related car crashes and are familiar with some long-term effects of heavy consumption, like liver disease. However,  alcohol use is also one of the most common risk factors for other preventable non-communicable diseases (NCDs), such as diabetes, heart disease, and stroke. 

There are also significant links between alcohol use and multiple types of cancer, including cancers of the head and neck, mouth, esophagus, liver, breast, and colon.  Globally, an estimated 741, 000 of all new cases of cancer in 2020 were attributable to alcohol consumption.  Alcohol contributes to infectious diseases such as tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS, and plays an insidious part in homicides, suicides, falls, acts of child abuse and violence against women.

Despite its harmful global footprint, alcohol often does not get attention worldwide as a public health issue. It’s time for that to change. 

COVID-19 and alcohol

Now is an especially urgent time – the COVID-19 pandemic appears to have driven increases in alcohol consumption, including the proportion of people drinking excessively to cope with isolation, anxiety, and stress.  

Furthermore, some countries have relaxed regulations on access to alcohol during the pandemic, allowing the alcohol industry to exploit the system and promoting alcohol as an essential item.  Substantial increases in deaths caused by excessive alcohol consumption during the COVID-19 pandemic in Brazil were documented by Vital Strategies in a recent study.

Although the industry markets alcohol consumption as a “lifestyle choice”, alcohol-related harm is an epidemic, driven by the industry that profits from it. A relentless focus on increasing sales includes capturing new customers that are less prone to drinking.

Though half the world’s adults do not use alcohol, the global numbers have been steadily growing due to marketing directed towards youth and women.

To make alcohol more palatable to these new potential customers, the industry markets alcohol brands to women using sweet flavors. Another form of marketing to exploit women by the alcohol industry is known as “pinkwashing,” the use of the color pink on products in an attempt to appeal to women and cynically link to breast cancer prevention programs.

Young and poor people are particularly affected

Evidence indicates that underage alcohol consumption and related harm is also a growing global problem. Youth who start using alcohol before age 15 are six times more likely to develop alcohol dependence than those who begin consuming alcohol at age 21.

The consequences of alcohol use are also magnified in countries with fewer economic resources. The less economically developed a country, the higher the attributable mortality and the burden of disease and injury per liter of alcohol consumed.  Alcohol-related health burdens are often greater in countries lacking effective regulation or with health systems with limited capacity to handle the burden of alcohol-attributable illnesses.

The good news is that there is a clear roadmap to address this issue. The most promising areas of global focus for alcohol policy include The WHO SAFER technical package, which calls on governments to use proven policies to reduce alcohol use including restrictions on where and when alcohol can be sold, restrictions on alcohol advertising, sponsorship, and promotion, and increasing the price of alcohol through taxes and other pricing policies.

WHO is also currently working on a new global alcohol action plan. Vital Strategies recently signed on to a joint statement that calls on WHO to prevent the alcohol industry from advancing its agenda within the action plan and to critically examine the industry’s efforts to tout the health benefits of alcohol consumption.

Government inactivity and industry interference in implementing the SAFER alcohol policies is causing suffering and lives lost to alcohol-related harms. Common sense, science-driven approaches can reduce alcohol-related injuries, illnesses, and deaths on a widespread scale.  The health and well-being of millions depend on governments’ willingness to act urgently.   

Adam Karpati
Princess Dina Mired

Adam Karpati, M.D., is Senior Vice President, Public Health Programs at Vital Strategies 

Her Royal Highness Princess Dina Mired of Jordan serves as Special Envoy for Noncommunicable Diseases at Vital Strategies

 

Image Credits: Adam Wilson/ Unsplash.

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