The World Health Organization (WHO) Executive Board (EB) meeting kicked off this week. There, member states will set the agenda for the World Health Assembly in May, providing a roadmap for the global health community at large.
The discussion will cover the implementation of the WHO’s global strategy to reduce the harmful use of alcohol (Global Strategy), part of the broader goal of reducing deaths from non-communicable diseases (NCDs).
The Global Strategy has so far been effective and should remain the leading international policy instrument to reduce harmful drinking. To pave the way forward for the WHO, member states at the United Nations General Assembly developed an NCD resolution that included positive and constructive language, such as: “invite the private sector to strengthen their commitment and contribution to the implementation of national responses to prevent, control and treat NCDs to reach health and development objectives.”
Despite the constructive progress that has been made, WHO EB documents have instead started to emphasize that reducing alcohol consumption is an unmet goal, pushing for members to adopt and expand the use of “best buys” policies. These policies—tax increases on alcohol, restrictions on alcohol marketing, and limitations on the physical availability of retailed alcohol—have unverified track records and can cause serious unintended consequences.
The WHO and member states need to recognize that not all consumption of alcohol is harmful. The vast majority of drinkers are responsible drinkers. What this blanket approach also fails to recognize is that the effectiveness of these policies can vary across countries and other contextual factors. For example, according to an Alcohol Measures for Public Health Research Alliance report, increased advertising restrictions in France and Spain were associated with decreases in consumption, compared to increases in Austria and Norway. This means that a one-size-fits-all approach, like implementing “best buy” policies, could actually hurt the goal of reducing harmful drinking.
The WHO must view the alcohol industry as a partner in helping to secure our shared goal of reducing the harmful use of alcohol. Addressing the harmful use of alcohol will require evidence-based policies that incorporate a whole of society rather than one-size-fits-all approaches.
Member states should continue to push for proven, collaborative approaches at the WHO EB to strengthen the Global Strategy, helping tackle the harmful use of alcohol and NCDs more broadly.