The World Health Organization (WHO) is the United Nations agency specialising in health and health promotion worldwide. The organisation is responsible for providing direction and guidance on health matters, monitoring and assessing health trends, and setting standards for the provision of healthcare.
WHO has identified alcohol as the fifth leading risk factor for premature death and disability in the world and the third leading contributor to disease burden in developed countries. WHO has called for comprehensive policy measures to reduce alcohol-related harm, not just for drinkers but also for those individuals and groups who are at risk of being negatively affected by others’ drinking.
The impact of problem alcohol use is greatest in the European region which has the highest alcohol consumption of all WHO regions – twice as high as the world average. The WHO Regional Office for Europe has played a significant role in facilitating policy formulation and action to address harmful alcohol use at national and regional levels within Europe. Policy guidance includes the European Alcohol Action Plan and a Framework for alcohol policy in the WHO European Region.
The SAFER Initiative
The World Health Organization released SAFER in September 2018, a new initiative and technical package outlining five high-impact strategies that can help governments to reduce the harmful use of alcohol and related health, social and economic consequences.
SAFER is the newest WHO-led roadmap to support governments in taking practical steps to accelerate progress on health, beat noncommunicable diseases (NCDs) through addressing the harmful use of alcohol, and achieve development targets.
Global Status Report on Alcohol and Health 2018
The harmful use of alcohol results in the death of 3 million people annually worldwide, or 1 in 20 deaths. It accounts for 5.3% of the global burden of disease and is a leading cause of premature death.
WHO’s most recently published global status report on alcohol and health analyses consumption, drinking patterns, health consequences and policy responses to reducing alcohol harm in over 100 countries across the world. The report concludes that too few countries are using effective policy options to prevent death, disease and injury from alcohol use.
Effective strategies to reduce harmful drinking include: increasing taxation and/or price, reducing availability through allowing fewer outlets to sell alcohol, raising age limits for those buying alcohol, and implementing effective drink-driving measures.
NEW: Critical comment from Sally Casswell and Juergen Rehm in The Lancet (28th March 2020) says that a recent Executive Board decision of the WHO to set up a working group involving, amongst others, industry groups from 2022-2030 makes the plan to reduce global harm from alcohol more unlikely. It also says meaningful global governance to achieve any reduction is made more difficult by governments not getting a handle on digital marketing, especially to young people, which the industry will continue to use to grow its profits over the coming period.
Global Strategy on Alcohol
In May 2010, the World Health Assembly adopted by consensus a Global Strategy to reduce harmful alcohol use. Acknowledging the rise in alcohol harm worldwide and its detrimental impact on individuals, families and communities, world health leaders agreed to wide-ranging interventions to reduce the damaging effects of alcohol.
The Global Strategy recognises that countries cannot tackle alcohol-related problems in isolation, particularly in light of the globalisation of the production, trade and marketing of alcoholic beverages, as well as the development of free trade agreements that have undermined the ability of national and local governments to regulate alcohol markets in the interests of public health.
The Global Strategy emphasises the implementation of effective interventions to reduce harm, including higher taxes and minimum unit prices for alcoholic drinks, and tighter restrictions on alcohol marketing.
The World Health Assembly
The World Health Assembly (WHA) is the supreme decision-making body for WHO. The WHA generally meets in Geneva each year. The main purpose of the WHA is to approve WHO’s programme of work and the budget, and to decide on major policy questions. The WHA is attended by delegations from 193 member states. All countries which are Members of the United Nations may become members of WHO by accepting its Constitution.
Member state delegations to the WHA are made up of government representatives, usually from departments or ministries of health. The UK representative in previous years has been the Chief Medical Officer for England.