OECD outlines action for governments to tackle heavy cost of harmful drinking


12/05/2015 - Harmful drinking is on the rise among young people and women in many OECD countries, partly due to alcohol becoming more available, more affordable and more effectively advertised, according to a new OECD report.  


Tackling Harmful Alcohol Use: Economics and Public Health Policy says that the increase of risky drinking behaviours is a worrying trend as it is associated with higher rates of traffic accidents and violence, as well as increased risk of acute and chronic health conditions. The report shows that several policies have the potential to reduce heavy drinking, regular or episodic, as well as alcohol dependence. Governments seeking to tackle binge drinking and other types of alcohol abuse can use a range of policies that have proven to be effective, including counselling heavy drinkers, stepping up enforcement of drinking-and-driving laws, as well as raising taxes, raising prices, and increasing the regulation of the marketing of alcoholic drinks.  


“The cost to society and the economy of excessive alcohol consumption around the world is massive, especially in OECD countries,” said OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurría, launching the report in Paris. ”This report provides clear evidence that even expensive alcohol abuse prevention policies are cost-effective in the long run and underlines the need for urgent action by governments.” (Read the full speech or Watch the press conference)


Today, alcohol consumption by adults in OECD countries is estimated at an average of around 10 litres of pure alcohol per capita each year, equivalent to over 100 bottles of wine. This level has fallen slightly over the past two decades overall but has particularly risen in Finland, Iceland, Israel, Norway, Poland and Sweden. Consumption has also risen substantially in the Russian Federation, Brazil, India and China, although from low levels in the last two.


Most alcohol is drunk by the heaviest-drinking 20 per cent of the population. Rates of  hazardous and heavy episodic drinking in young people, especially women, have increased in many OECD countries: the share of children under 15 who have been drunk jumped from 30% to 43% for boys and from 26% to 41% among girls during the 2000s. Overall, less educated men are more likely to indulge in heavy drinking while the opposite is true for women where the better educated are more prone to heavy drinking.


Alcohol abuse ranks as one of the leading causes of death and disability, killing more people worldwide than HIV/AIDS, violence and tuberculosis combined. Between 1990 and 2010, harmful drinking rose from eighth to fifth leading cause of death and disability worldwide.


An analysis of the impact of alcohol abuse prevention policies in Canada, Czech Republic and Germany reveals that taking action can reduce rates of heavy drinking and alcohol dependence by five to 10 per cent.


Policies should target heavy drinkers first. For instance, through primary care physicians who can identify harmful drinkers and persuade them to start dealing with the issue; and through a tougher enforcement of drinking-and-driving laws to cut traffic casualties.


But broader approaches may  also sometimes be needed to complement these measures, including by raising costs, for example through increased taxes, or by imposing minimum prices on cheaper alcohol. Greater regulation of alcohol advertising and increasing investment on educating young people on the dangers of harmful alcohol use is also important. Initiatives promoted by the alcohol industry may also have a role to play but more independent evidence of their impact is needed.


Individual country notes are available for: Australia, Canada (English, French), Czech Republic, Finland, France (French, English), Germany (German, English), Ireland, Italy (Italian, English), Japan (Japanese, English), Korea, Mexico (Spanish, English), Spain (Spanish, English), Switzerland, United Kingdom and USA.


Browse the full report at:


For further information or comment, journalists should contact the OECD Media Division ([email protected]; tel. + 33 1 45 24 97 00).


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