In societies across the globe, the consumption of alcohol is deeply ingrained, associated with cultural traditions dating back hundreds or even thousands of years. It brings people together, and it is how they celebrate, commiserate and unwind. Alcohol is, however, acknowledged as being ‘a good servant but a bad master’, and its misuse has provided an ongoing conundrum for regulators and lawmakers who need to strike a balance between personal freedoms and the common good.
The concern of many in the drinks industry is that the debate is focusing too much on the negative, and not enough on the positive aspects that drinking alcohol may bring to the lives of the overwhelming majority of consumers who do so responsibly. Increasingly, in its vilification of alcohol consumption, there is a fear that some in the health lobby are placing drinking in the same bracket as smoking. Smoking and alcohol are in reality very different entities.
In contrast to drinking alcohol, there are no upsides to smoking, even in moderation. The World Health Organization (WHO) labels it the ‘global tobacco epidemic’ and reports that it kills up to half of the 1.1bn smokers worldwide. The WHO FCTC (Framework Convention on Tobacco Control) rightly provides a robust number of measures to tackle its use and spread.
There is a fear that some in the health lobby are placing drinking in the same bracket as smoking.
The pitfalls of excess drinking have long been chronicled by writers from Aristotle to Zola, but the WHO’S ‘Global Status Report on Alcohol and Health 2018’ still makes for uncomfortable reading for the alcohol industry. It documents a complex range of side effects, and the heavy toll paid by many drinkers. The report also attempts to put a number on the drinkers with ‘alcohol-use disorders’: of the 2.3bn worldwide drinkers, it estimates that 283m fall into this camp – a little over 12%. You can therefore conclude that nearly 88% of drinkers are able to manage their consumption.
Although there are studies that suggest that the moderate consumption of alcohol may bring some health benefits, it is generally accepted that, overall, the 88% are exposed to a greater risk to their well-being than those who abstain. That risk, though, is not as pronounced as the one posed to the smoker, and the beneficial aspects of alcohol consumption should be weighed against those risks when policies are developed to control consumption.
What the WHO’s report highlights is the level of existing regulations in place in markets around the world: 95% of countries have alcohol excise taxes in place, while the number of countries with a written national alcohol policy has steadily increased since 2008 to 80. Although the level of checks and balances remains a work in progress in parts of Asia, Africa and the Americas, in the developed world – particularly in Europe, where some of the highest consumption rates are recorded – the existing regulations and taxation rates should generally be vigorous enough to fulfil their role of encouraging moderation.
The danger of more draconian regulations and higher duty rates is that consumers will simply source their alcohol through other, unregulated channels.
With the tendency to put alcohol consumption on a par with smoking, the inevitable temptation will be for legislators to tighten the net further still. The danger of more draconian regulations and higher duty rates is that consumers will simply source their alcohol through other, unregulated channels. In these murky waters, consumption is difficult to monitor, manipulate and measure.
According to the WHO, around a quarter of all alcohol drunk around the world is listed as coming from an ‘unrecorded alcohol’ source. The less accessible alcohol is made through legitimate channels, the more consumers will be exposed to illicit and counterfeit alternatives. ‘Bootleg’ alcohol may often be produced in small batches in backyards but the similarities with fashionable craft production stop there, and this alcohol poses a considerable risk to health.
It is not just illegitimate alcohol that will be boosted if prices rise too steeply and regulations become too oppressive: consumers will commute to buy their alcohol and cross-border trade will flourish. In Scandinavia, where there is a strong tradition of high duty and strict regulation, the knock-on effect has been to trigger a vibrant border trade, notably with Germany. This encourages not only bulk buying, but a thriving smuggling trade. The well-meaning determination to keep a tight rein on alcohol intake has been counterproductive.
Scandinavia is at the extreme end of the scale and undoubtedly regulations do need to be tightened in developing parts of the world, where rising disposable incomes are enabling more people to enter the alcohol sector. In most developed markets, the current rules and duty rates might need to be fine-tuned but they do not need to be overhauled. The fundamental difference between smoking and alcohol is that smoking policy should be targeted at eradicating the habit, while the strategy for alcohol consumption should be to manage it. The 88% already have that right.
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