Binge drinking spirals among youth and women: OECD

Hazardous and “binge” drinking is on the rise internationally among young people and especially young women, a study shows.

The reason, according to a report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), is mostly due to alcohol becoming more available, more affordable and more effectively advertised.

Harmful alcohol consumption is now responsible for a greater proportion of deaths worldwide than Aids and tuberculosis combined.

‘Tackling Harmful Alcohol Use: Economics and Public Health Policy’ says the increase of risky drinking behaviours is a worrying trend as it is associated with higher rates of car accidents and violence, as well as increased risk of acute and chronic health conditions.

The report shows that excessive consumption reduces economic output in most developed countries and contributes to early death and disability.

READ MORE: Hazardous drinking kills more than Aids and TB

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 marketing regulation.

The OECD estimated that harmful alcohol consumption results in annual losses in economic output of roughly 1% of gross domestic production in most developed economies, while it rose from eighth to fifth as the leading cause of death and disability in the world between 1990 and 2010.

“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.”

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 more than 100 bottles of wine. This has fallen slightly over the past two decades overall but has risen in Finland, Iceland, Israel, Norway, Poland, and Sweden.

Consumption has also risen substantially in the Russian Federation, Brazil, India, and China.

“Most alcohol is drunk by the heaviest-drinking 20% of the population,” says the report. “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 at least once 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 Aids, violence and TB combined, the study shows. Between 1990 and 2010, harmful drinking rose from eighth to the fifth leading cause of death and disability worldwide.

READ MORE: Extra €1m to help curb binge drinking

Boost for minimum pricing plans

The latest OECD report will boost the Government’s plans to introduce minimum alcohol pricing, drawing a direct correlation between the cost of alcohol and harmful consumption.

The OECD says increasing taxes is among the most effective means of countering excessive consumption but also reveals Ireland already has higher levels of taxation for all the types of alcohol beverages than any other OECD country.

The OECD describes the Public Health (Alcohol) Bill as the “most far-reaching [measure] proposed by any Irish Government, with alcohol being addressed for the first time as a public health issue. The Bill includes provisions for minimum unit pricing, health labelling on alcohol products, structural separation, restrictions on the advertising and marketing of alcohol, regulation of sports sponsorship and enforcement powers for Environmental Health Officers.”

The levels of alcohol consumption in Ireland increased significantly from 1980 to 2001 and then declined but are still above the OECD average.

The study shows that Irish people drink 11.6 litres of pure alcohol per person compared, with the average of 9.1 litres. Preliminary estimates by Revenue Commissioners for 2014 show a slight drop to 11 litres per capita, exactly the same as that consumed by Germans.

It also wants the Irish Government — among others — to consider alcohol abuse prevention policies adopted in Canada, the Czech Republic, and Germany which show that taking action can reduce rates of heavy drinking and alcohol dependence by 5% to 10%.

“Policies should target heavy drinkers first,” says the OECD report, through primary care where doctors who can identify harmful drinkers and persuade them to tackle the issue and through a tougher enforcement of drink-driving laws.

The OECD says that broader approaches may also sometimes be needed, including raising costs through increased taxes, or by imposing minimum prices on cheaper alcohol.

READ MORE: Hazardous drinking kills more than Aids and TB

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