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WHO's View on Alcohol and Health

October 2009
by Jim Gordon
While grapegrowers and winemakers are laboring through the immediate, urgent challenges of the 2009 crush, their advocates in Washington, D.C., are facing less urgent, but no less important issues. One of those is an effort by the World Health Organization to write a "Global Strategy to Reduce Harmful Use of Alcohol."

The WHO is a respected branch of the United Nations, and as such its views on alcohol could become very influential in public policy for decades to come. A draft of the WHO strategy, now circulating, gives reasons for both hope and alarm. The alarm comes from excited passages like the following that seem to show an antagonistic approach to the industry:

"Alcohol is, however, a toxic and psychoactive substance that can lead to dependence, and its harmful use has serious effects on public health."

"Harmful use of alcohol is one of the main risk factors for poor health globally. It compromises both individual and social development. It can ruin the lives of individuals, devastate families and damage the fabric of communities."

The authors go on to suggest measures that they believe will control harmful alcohol use by reducing its consumption. These include--no surprise to vintners who have followed these issues before--higher taxes to slow consumption, a lower blood-alcohol limit (.05%) for impaired driving, and restrictions or bans on marketing.

One industry advocate who has studied the draft closely is Bill Nelson, president of WineAmerica, the national association of American wineries. Nelson and his staff just moved into a new office in D.C., though he is at home in wine country, too, having been a winemaker and enology consultant in Oregon before becoming a lobbyist.

Nelson writes in his September newsletter: "The glass-half-full part is that there are no draconian neo-Prohibitionist recommendations--at least not yet. The half-empty part is that the old shibboleths like controlling availability, raising taxes, lowering driving blood-alcohol content allowances and curtailing marketing all make an appearance in the document."

He points out that the WHO draft doesn't emphasize enough the difference between abusers and moderate drinkers. This blurring may mean that measures recommended by WHO to battle abuse could backfire and result in overall worse health for countries that adopt them. The idea of a sin tax that makes alcohol too expensive for abusers to buy, and thus reduces abuse, is an old one. It's been a major weapon in the war against tobacco, and some legislators and other policymakers still don't mind lumping together wine and cigarettes.

However, Nelson states that researchers continue to have doubts about this approach. He cites a study by the National Bureau of Economic Research called Sin Taxes: Do Heterogeneous Responses Undercut Their Value? It suggests that "higher prices could fail to curb drinking by those most likely to cause negative externalities."

What if the drinkers most deterred by higher prices and restrictions on marketing turn out to be the moderate ones--the ones whose consumption has been positively linked again and again in health studies with lower rates of heart disease and longer life spans? In other words, an important policy being pondered by the World Health Organization might backfire, and the world's health could suffer. That's a possibility to be avoided.

The hopeful part of the draft contains more realistic language like this: "Harm-reduction measures have the potential to prevent and reduce the negative consequences from alcohol consumption without specifically aiming at--nor necessarily reducing--the consumption of alcohol itself." This sounds quite a bit milder than the "dry" movement of the early 1900s and of the Prohibitionist revival in the 1980s.

Still, it gives wine industry lobbyists like Nelson, his colleagues from California's Wine Institute, various other state winegrower groups and, one hopes, all legislators from North American vineyard regions, something serious to think about. They have only a few months to react to the WHO document and make it more realistic for wine producers and helpful to wine consumers. Final adoption is scheduled for May 2010.
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