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Tackling Harmful Alcohol Use

Economics and Public Health Policy

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Alcoholic beverages, and their harmful use, have been familiar fixtures in human societies since the beginning of recorded history. Worldwide, alcohol is a leading cause of ill health and premature mortality. It accounts for 1 in 17 deaths, and for a significant proportion of disabilities, especially in men. In OECD countries, alcohol consumption is about twice the world average. Its social costs are estimated in excess of 1% of GDP in high- and middle-income countries. When it is not the result of addiction, alcohol use is an individual choice, driven by social norms, with strong cultural connotations. This is reflected in unique patterns of social disparity in drinking, showing the well-to-do in some cases more prone to hazardous use of alcohol, and a polarisation of problem-drinking at the two ends of the social spectrum. Certain patterns of drinking have social impacts, which provide a strong economic rationale for governments to influence the use of alcohol through policies aimed at curbing harms, including those occurring to people other than drinkers. Some policy approaches are more effective and efficient than others, depending on their ability to trigger changes in social norms, and on how well they can target the groups that are most at risk. This book provides a detailed examination of trends and social disparities in alcohol consumption. It offers a wide-ranging assessment of the health, social and economic impacts of key policy options for tackling alcohol-related harms in three OECD countries (Canada, the Czech Republic and Germany), extracting relevant policy messages for a broader set of countries.

 

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Alcohol: The public health side of a social phenomenon

Alcohol has been present throughout the history of humankind, both cherished and vilified for reasons that have remained largely unchanged over time. Both health benefits and harms are associated with alcohol use, but the underlying evidence of these effects is rarely presented in a policy-relevant way. If appropriately set out, the evidence shows that the health benefits of moderate alcohol use warrant full consideration in the policy process, but they do not weaken the case for addressing harmful use, including when governments opt for policies that affect more people than just the heaviest drinkers. Alcohol use is associated with social welfare benefits for some drinkers, but also with significant welfare losses for other heavier drinkers and many non-drinkers. Alcohol policy is a public health area in which government action has a strong economic justification, primarily because of harms to people other than drinkers, and because of the addictive effects of alcohol. This chapter provides an overview of some of the main findings of OECD analyses presented in the remainder of the book, looking at economic determinants of, and explanations for, alcohol consumption, as well as at some of the cultural, social and psychological dimensions of its use.

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