Research demonstrates higher alcohol taxes help reduce alcohol consumption

WHO/Marina Bykova

“Tax increases may not sound the most attractive of policy options, but are the single most cost-effective way of diminishing demand and reining back consumption,” says Dr Daniel Chisholm, Programme Manager in the Division of Noncommunicable Diseases and Promoting Health through the Life-course at WHO/Europe and co-author of a new study on alcohol control policies.

The study, conducted by WHO and one of its collaborating centres based in Canada, was published in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs in July 2018. It analyses the cost–effectiveness of a range of alcohol control strategies.

Using data from 16 countries, the study assesses the costs and health impacts of different policy options, with a view to identifying “best buys” for reducing harmful alcohol use and thereby improving overall health in the population.

Previous research has indicated that more than 5% of deaths worldwide and over 4% of the global burden of disease are directly related to alcohol use. The study shows that increasing alcohol excise taxes by 50% would be the most cost-effective policy to reduce harmful alcohol use.

This measure is more efficient than alternative options in the same price category, such as restrictions on sale hours and advertising, and significantly less expensive than other policies considered. Indeed, it would cost considerably less than the equivalent of US$ 100 for each year of healthy life gained.

However, low levels of awareness of health risks related to alcohol consumption and strong lobbying from the industry often lead to low excise taxes, warns Dr Chisholm.

Restrictions on sale hours and alcohol advertising have also shown to be cost-effective measures; each costs less than US$ 100 per healthy year of life gained in the overall population.

As the study does not look at other effects, such as better productivity at work, it might have underestimated the positive effects of the proposed policies.

“It is expected that this new evidence will feed into renewed policy dialogue at the national level and help to guide decision-makers to implement and enforce stronger measures that address the harms associated with alcohol use,” says Dr Carina Ferreira-Borges, Programme Manager for Alcohol and Illicit Drugs at WHO/Europe. “The analysis forms part of the recent updates made to WHO’s Global action plan for the prevention and control of noncommunicable diseases 2013–2020.”