Should the World Health Organization Regulate Alcohol Use?

A University of Oxford researcher is calling on the World Health Organization to put in place policies that would regulate alcohol use.

Devi Sridhar, a lecturer in global health politics, wrote that WHO should treat dangerous drinking as a global public health crisis, just as the agency treats disease outbreaks and tobacco use.  WHO, she said, requires countries to report outbreaks of certain diseases and also institutes policies requiring member nations to take measures designed to curb tobacco's supply and demand.

"About 2.5 million deaths a year, almost 4 percent of all deaths worldwide, are attributed to alcohol - more than the number of deaths caused by HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis or malaria," Sridhar wrote in her commentary, published in the journal Nature.

In 2010, WHO published a document, the WHO Global Strategy to Reduce Harmful Use of Alcohol, that included strategies such as prohibiting "unlimited drinks" promotions and instituting a minimum age to purchase alcohol.  These recommendations, Sridhar argued, should become legal requirements.

Excessive drinking is also a major public health issue in the U.S.  According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, excessive drinking cost the U.S. $223.5 billion in 2006.  Losses in workplace productivity, illnesses caused by too much drinking and motor vehicle accidents made up most of the burden.

Dr. Ihsan Salloum, a professor of psychiatry at  the University of  Miami's Miller School of Medicine, said while binge drinking and alcoholism are problems in the U.S., preventive strategies in this country, such as raising the legal drinking age and taxing alcoholic beverages, have helped reduce the alcohol-related health burden significantly.

"If we can get countries around the world to agree on these type of strategies, we can have a significant impact on morbidity and mortality," he said.

Even if there is international consensus on ways to reduce problem drinking, Sridhar said there will likely be problems with enforcement, just as there are with tobacco in certain countries.

Nonetheless, she said WHO must move forward with efforts to make safer consumption of alcohol a public health priority.

"The WHO is the only body with the legitimacy and authority to proactively promote health through the use of international law," she wrote.