Should alcohol be treated like tobacco by lobbyists and lawmakers?

IWSR looks at how the two sectors vary, and why more draconian policies for alcohol could be counterintuitive


As part of European Week Against Cancer, the World Health Organization (WHO) has released a factsheet that frames alcohol as a public health menace, reiterating its stance that there is “no safe level of alcohol consumption for cancer” and that “the risk of cancer from alcohol consumption increases from the first drink”.

Alcohol misuse has presented an on-going conundrum for regulators and lawmakers who seek to strike a balance between personal freedoms and the common good. While the industry has broadly moved towards a ‘drink less but better’ ethos, providing more product information on-pack and online and investing millions of dollars in responsible drinking campaigns, the WHO wants to see measures taken even further.

The group’s ‘best buy’ list of recommended interventions for governments – emphasised on the factsheet – include: make alcohol less affordable, ban or restrict alcohol marketing on all types of media, and reduce alcohol availability. WHO also supports legislation to place health warnings – including those relating to cancer – on the labels of alcoholic drinks.

As the WHO drafts its Global Strategy to Reduce the Harmful Use of Alcohol – an action plan for 2022-30 – there are concerns that alcohol will be treated much like tobacco: as a pervasive threat to public health. However, the two sectors are very different, and cookie cutter policies for alcohol could actually have a negative effect on public health.

In contrast to drinking alcohol, there are no upsides to smoking, even in moderation; with regards to alcohol, some researchers have identified benefits of responsible, moderate drinking. The WHO refers to a ‘global tobacco epidemic’ and reports that smoking kills up to half of the 1.1 billion smokers worldwide. The WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control rightly provides a robust number of measures to tackle its use and spread.

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% of the drinking population who are able to control their consumption 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.

In developed markets, particularly Europe, the existing regulations and taxation rates should generally be vigorous enough to fulfil their roll of encouraging moderation. There are certainly improvements to be made in parts of Asia, Africa and Latin America when it comes to enforcing regulations, but 95% of countries around the world have alcohol excise taxes in place.

The danger of implementing more draconian regulations and higher duty rates for alcohol is that consumers will simply source their alcohol through unregulated channels, which are difficult to measure and control. The less accessible alcohol is made through legitimate channels, the more consumers will be exposed to illicit and counterfeit alternatives, posing a considerable risk to public health.

There is also a danger that cross-border trade will flourish, as seen in Scandinavia, where high duties and strict regulation has prompted drinkers to bulk buy alcohol in Germany. In addition to the inherent risks of buying alcohol, this encourages a thriving smuggling trade and grey market activity.

Undoubtedly, regulations need to be tightened in developing parts of the world, where rising disposable incomes are enabling more people to enter the alcohol sector. However, in most developed markets, an overhaul would be surplus to requirements to safeguard drinkers; at the most, the current regulations and duty rates may need to be fine-tuned.

The fundamental difference between smoking and alcohol is that tobacco policy should be targeted at eradicating the habit, while the strategy for alcohol consumption should be to manage it.


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