Alcohol - finally a priority issue for the WHO again?

Published 2022-02-02

Last week, the WHO adopted its board meeting in "Global Alcohol Action Plan”. The action plan was commissioned by the member states two years ago and has been developed by the WHO Secretariat since then. The decision taken last week is an important milestone, but it is only at the meeting with the World Health Assembly in May that the action plan can be adopted definitively.

Over ten years ago - in May 2010 - was adopted WHO's Global Alcohol Strategy. The Member States realized that something had to be done. The alcohol industry's products are behind three million deaths each year, and are one of the biggest risk factors behind our most common diseases. The answer was a strategy with clear, effective alcohol policy measures.

The problem is that the implementation of the global alcohol strategy has been ineffective and slow, especially in low- and middle-income countries. While the alcohol industry sees these parts of the world as strategically important - they call them "emerging markets" and invest huge resources in marketing, lobbying and acquisitions - many countries here completely lack a protective, evidence-based alcohol policy. In large parts of sub-Saharan Africa, there are no functioning rules regarding age limits, sales and marketing, and the big alcohol giants can act in principle undisturbed and uncontrolled.

The consequences will be that the burden on healthcare systems will increase, that more people will be locked in poverty, that more children will be exposed to violence or forced to work instead of going to school. An effective alcohol policy is a catalyst for sustainable development - both in terms of better public health and sustainable healthcare systems, poverty reduction, prevention of domestic violence, protection of children's rights and much more. A report from Movendi International shows that 14 of the 17 global goals would be positively impacted if the world did a better job of preventing alcohol-related harm.

An effective alcohol policy is a catalyst for sustainable development

It is in that light that this action plan should be seen. Two years ago, the member states sent a clear signal to the organization's management: We want the WHO to do more in this area.

The action plan that has been developed is not perfect. The language used is outdated, and in some cases clearly adapted to the countries that have a very close and cozy relationship with the alcohol industry. In both the global alcohol strategy and the new action plan, it is clear that broad, population-oriented measures - aimed at reducing total alcohol consumption - are the most effective in reducing harm. The new action plan also points out that it has now been established that there is no completely safe level of consumption. Despite this, it is still said that "harmful use of alcohol" is the problem.

The action plan has improved the writings about the alcohol industry. It is clear that all policy processes concerning alcohol must be protected from the influence of the alcohol industry. Despite this, it has chosen to give industry its own title with recommended measures under each target area - at the same level as the WHO, the Member States, academia and civil society. It is clear that the WHO Secretariat is balancing on a slack line here: Civil society and many member states want the document to be clearer, but at the same time too strong wording against the alcohol industry can risk losing support from some countries, which of course is a problem in an organization that makes decisions by consensus.

The plan adopted by the WHO board last week also contains much that is good. A clear goal is set: Alcohol consumption will decrease by 20 percent by 2030, and the focus is clearly on what is often called "alcohol policy best buys", ie the most cost-effective measures: Limited availability (age limits, opening hours, etc.), higher prices via taxes and bans or strict regulation of marketing.

The IOGT-NTO movement has worked intensively over the past two years to make this action plan as good as possible. Together with many of our partner organizations, we have participated in the consultations that the WHO has arranged and we have tried to influence Sweden and other countries. At the WHO's board meeting last week, we heard strong statements in support of more active alcohol policies, including from the countries of the African Union. Among other things, they call for more support for policy development.

I look forward to the meeting with the World Health Assembly in May, and hopes that this action plan will be adopted there as well. Then, of course, it becomes a workshop as well: Resources must be allocated so that the WHO can provide the support that the member states demand. We also hope that member countries will request regular reports from the WHO Secretariat on the implementation of the action plan. When the global alcohol strategy was adopted in 2010, it became silent for ten years - it must not happen again.



Pierre Andersson

Police Adviser, IOGT-NTO movement