New WHO factsheets reveal Europe struggles to implement policies to reduce alcohol consumption

Alex Plonsky

The WHO European Region struggles with one of the highest levels of alcohol-related deaths in the world. To discuss effective and evidence-based ways to reverse this trend, Member States met in Stockholm, Sweden, at the first regional consultation focused on the implementation of the European action plan to reduce the harmful use of alcohol 2012–2020.

Participants reviewed ways to bring critical support to this process. The European action plan has supported the reduction of alcohol consumption since its adoption, but room for improvement remains. More than 3 million people died worldwide as a result of alcohol abuse in 2016, and 1 million of those deaths occurred in the European Region.

“The numbers are striking and, although the problem is complex, we know which actions and policies are effective,” said Dr Bente Mikkelsen, Director of the Division of Noncommunicable Diseases and Promoting Health through the Life-course at WHO/Europe. “Sadly, we still see extremely high death rates from alcohol-attributable causes even 7 years into the European action plan timeline and 4 years after the adoption of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.”

To better understand the seriousness of the problem, WHO/Europe released a series of factsheets on alcohol consumption, harm and policy responses for 30 European countries. The factsheets reveal that in European Union Member States as well as Norway and Switzerland, some 42% of all traffic deaths and 23% of all injury deaths were due to alcohol in 2016. During the same period, 1 in 5 deaths among those aged 15 to 19 was alcohol-related.

Effective policies with low implementation

The European action plan describes 10 targeted areas for action. “What stands out at this point is the overall low implementation rate of pricing policies across all the countries,” said Dr Carina Ferreira-Borges, Manager of the Alcohol and Illicit Drugs Programme at the WHO European Office for the Prevention and Control of Noncommunicable Diseases, and coordinator of the review.

“Of all the alcohol policy measures, the evidence is perhaps strongest for the impact of alcohol prices on alcohol consumption and alcohol-related harm,” she explained. Health information on bottles to make people aware of the dangers and health risks associated with drinking is also important. But the implementation of many of these ideas and policy goals has been slow. Digital marketing of alcohol is a new challenge and another area where action is necessary.

The meeting in Stockholm, organized with the support of Sweden and Germany, began the discussion of how to strengthen implementation of the European action plan. It was followed by a consultation in Portugal with civil society organizations.

A success story from the Russian Federation

The Russian Federation is an example of a country that has successfully implemented several policies to reduce alcohol consumption. Since 2005, the Russian Federation has raised the price of alcoholic beverages, reduced the availability of alcohol and increased the minimum legal drinking age. The results of these measures have been impressive.

In 2006, consumption for Russians aged 15 years and older was, on average, 17.1 litres of pure alcohol per person, according to WHO. By 2016, WHO reported that the level of alcohol consumption had dropped to 11.1 litres per person.

“The drop in alcohol consumption that occurred in the Russian Federation is one of the most important results for us in this Region. In the long term, we would like to make the experience of the Russian Federation available to other countries with similar challenges,” said Dr Ferreira-Borges.