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  • A Lancet study suggests moderate alcohol use over time can “significantly shorten your life
  • Experts call for the study’s findings to be widely disseminated and discussed
  • A 2010 Lancet study suggested alcohol is more harmful than heroin or crack cocaine
  • Alcohol related harm is a global epidemic caused by a commercial product
  • There are 3.3m deaths each year caused by alcohol use
  • Policies to reduce the harmful effects of alcohol are palliative rather than preventative
  • A few giant alcohol beverages corporations dominate the global market
  • But 50% of the market is in the hands of informal small-scale producers
  • There is a dearth of reliable information on the alcohol beverages industry
  • Public health research has not kept up with the industry’s ability for innovative marketing
  • British drinkers contribute more in alcohol-related taxes than the direct costs of alcohol-related health and crime issues
  
Moderate alcohol use can kill
 
Just when you thought you knew everything there is to know about the harmful effects of alcohol, a study published in the April 2018 edition of The Lancet, brings new evidence to suggest that even modest alcohol use over time is as dangerous as smoking and can “significantly shorten your life”.  The study reinforces the fact that alcohol-related harm is a ‘global epidemic’ caused by a commercial product, which is aggressively marketed throughout the world. Policies aimed at reducing the harmful effects of alcohol have a limited effect and alcohol use continues to be a significant challenge to medicine and society.  
 
In this Commentary

This Commentary discusses some of the reasons why public policies to limit alcohol use fail to dent the vast and escalating burden caused by alcohol use. We begin by describing the findings of The Lancet 2018 study, which highlights the association between regular modest drinking and early death. The study’s findings motivated healthcare professionals to renew calls for lower limits on alcohol use. A study published in The Lancet in 2010 suggested alcohol is more harmful than heroin or crack cocaine. Public policies to reduce the harmful effects of alcohol use are compromised by the competing interests of the principal industry stakeholders. Such policies tend to be orientated towards the demand side of the market and focus on individual consumers and are less engaged with the supply side and large producers. This results in: (i) public policies that are more palliative than preventative, (ii) alcohol use continuing to be a major healthcare and social challenge, (iii) giant alcohol beverages producers receiving a “free pass”, and (iv) governments enhancing their “political capital” by pointing to the millions spent to correct the drinking habits of vulnerable individuals. This ecosystem is further influenced by: (i) the duty and tax revenues governments collect from alcohol use, (ii) public research failing to keep pace with the sophisticated marketing strategies of large drinks companies, and (iii) well resourced, and smart producers’ marketing strategies out-maneuverering government bureaucracies in endeavours to influence the tastes and preferences of individuals.
 
The Lancet study

The contribution of alcohol use to premature death is less well recognised than the connection between smoking, lung cancer and early death. The Lancet 2018 study helps to redress this by improving on previous meta-analyses to define low-risk drinking thresholds, and to suggest that people who consume more than 7 drinks a week can expect to die sooner than those who drink less. According to a February 2018 World Health Organization (WHO) report, an estimated 3.3m people a year worldwide die as a result of alcohol misuse. The harmful effects of alcohol ranks among the top 5 risk factors for disease, disability and death globally, and alcohol misuse is the 5th leading risk factor for premature death and disability worldwide. Most people who die because of their drinking patterns are not alcoholics, but are people who drink regularly over a number of years.
 
The Lancet 2018 study is significant because of its size and methodological robustness.  There is a high degree of comparability in the datasets used by the authors, which combined data from 83 previous studies undertaken in 19 countries, which yielded a cohort of 600,000 current drinkers for analysis. The previous studies used by the researchers to attain their cohort employed similar methods to quantify alcohol use, cardiovascular risk factors, and cardiovascular disease outcomes and cause-specific deaths. All participants in the cohort were from developed industrial economies, displayed similar patterns of alcohol use and none had a known history of cardiovascular disease.
 
The study’s findings imply that drinking alcohol is as harmful as smoking and suggest that there is a significant increase in all causes of death when more than 100g of alcohol (equivalent to about 4 large glasses of wine) is consumed weekly over a period of time. Every glass of wine or pint of beer over the daily recommended limit - the upper “safe” limit in the UK is 5 standard 175ml glasses of wine or 5 pints of beer a week - will cut 30 minutes from the expected lifespan of a 40-year-old and increase the risk of stroke, fatal aneurysm (a ruptured artery in the chest), heart failure and death. A 40-year-old who drinks up to twice that amount (200g or 8 large glasses of wine per week) will shorten their life expectancy by 6 months. Drinking between 200g and 350g (8 to 20 large glasses of wine) a week will reduce their life expectancy by 1 to 2 years, and 40-year-olds who drink more than 350g (>20 large glasses of wine) a week over a period, shorten their lives by 4 to 5 years.
 
Lowering the recommended limits of alcohol consumption
 
According to Angela Wood, from the University of Cambridge in the UK and lead author of the 2018 study, “The key message of this research for public health is that, if you already drink alcohol, drinking less may help you live longer and lower your risk of several cardiovascular conditions.” Although moderate drinking is commonly associated with reducing your chance of a non-fatal heart attack, “This must be balanced against the higher risk associated with other serious, and potentially fatal cardiovascular diseases,” says Wood. According to the researchers the study’s findings support, “limits for alcohol consumption that are lower than those recommended in most current guidelines [and add] long-term reduction of alcohol consumption from 196g per week (the upper limit recommended in US guidelines) to 100g per week or below was associated with about 1–2 years of longer life expectancy at age 40 years”. Co-author Naveed Sattar, Professor of Metabolic Medicine at the University of Glasgow’s Institute of Cardiovascular and Medical Science in Scotland said: "This study provides clear evidence to support lowering the recommended limits of alcohol consumption in many countries around the world."

 
Experts call for lower limits on alcohol use

Commenting on the study’s findings, Tim Chico, Professor of Cardiovascular Medicine at the University of Sheffield,UK, said, smokers lose on average 10 years of their life. “However, we think from previous evidence that it is likely that people drinking a lot more than 43 units (about 14 large glasses of wine a week) are likely to lose even more life expectancy, and I would not be surprised if the heaviest drinkers lost as many years of life as a smoker. . . The study makes clear that on balance there are no health benefits from drinking alcohol, which is usually the case when things sound too good to be true.”

In a commentary in the same edition of The LancetJason Connor and Wayne Hall both professors from the University of Queensland Centre for Youth Substance Abuse Research in Australia, anticipated that the suggestion to lower recommended drinking limits would be opposed by giant alcohol beverages corporations. “The drinking levels recommended in this study will no doubt be described as implausible and impracticable by the alcohol industry and other opponents of public health warnings on alcohol. Nonetheless, the findings ought to be widely disseminated and they should provoke informed public and professional debate,” say Connor and Hall.

 
A 2010 study published in The Lancet claims alcohol is more harmful that heroin

In the November 2010 edition of The Lancet David Nutt, Professor of Neuropharmacology at Imperial College London and co-author of the study suggested that alcohol is more harmful than heroin or crack cocaine when the overall dangers to the individual and society are considered. Nutt was the clinical scientific lead on the 2004-5 UK Government Foresight initiative “Brain science, addiction and drugs”. The Lancet 2010 study suggested that if drugs were classified on the basis of the harm they do, alcohol would be a class ‘A’ drug, alongside heroin and crack cocaine. In 2006 Nutt was dismissed for challenging the UK Government’s refusal to take the advice of the official Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs,  which he then chaired.

In answer to The Lancet 2010 study a UK government Department of Health spokesperson said: "In England, most people drink once a week or less. If you're a woman and stick to 2 to 3 units a day, or a man and drink up to 3 or 4 units, you are unlikely to damage your health".
No agreed international limits for alcohol use
 
The reality is that there are no internationally agreed limits on alcohol use and current recommended limits vary significantly between nations. In a study published in the June 2012 edition of the Drug and Alcohol Review  researchers from the University of SussexUK, examined government issued guidelines on alcohol limits in 57 countries and found, “a remarkable lack of agreement about what constitutes harmful or excessive alcohol consumption on a daily basis, a weekly basis and when driving”.

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Alcohol use and dementia

In 2016 the UK Government updated its 1995 guidelines  for limits on alcohol use and recommended that neither men nor women should drink more that 14 units of alcohol per week. A unit in the UK is equivalent to 8g of pure alcohol. This means British men are now being told they should drink less than those in Ireland (21.2 British units), Denmark (21), New Zealand (19) and considerably less than the recommended upper limit for men in Spain (35).
 
 
The supply side of the alcohol industry

Current public policies and industry pledges
Although public policies to reduce the harmful effects of alcohol use are aimed at both the individual and population levels, they tend to orientate towards individual problem drinkers. Among the most effective policy options are alcohol taxes, restrictions on alcohol availability and drink-driving countermeasures. The giant alcohol beverages corporations advocate responsible drinking and pledge their commitment to, “supporting balanced initiatives that are linked to their core business functions and those that address wider social and public health issues, relying on initiatives that are evidence based, culturally sensitive, and collaborative.” The drinks producers support the WHO’s Global Strategy to reduce the harmful Effects of Alcohol, and are committed to: (i) reducing under-age drinking, (ii) strengthening and expanding marketing codes of practice, (iii) providing consumer information and responsible product innovation, (iv) reducing drinking and driving, and (v) enlisting the support of retailers to reduce harmful drinking.  

Growth of service economies and the importance of individual preferences
Despite public policies and industry pledges to limit alcohol use, the large and escalating burden of alcohol problems continue to present significant challenges to medicine and public health. In part, this is because population-based public health policies tend to be overlooked in favour of policies oriented towards individual drinkers. This orientation can be explained by globalization.
 
Over the past 40 years globalization has shifted the economic base of developed nations from manufacturing to services, which places greater emphasis on consumer markets and individual preferences. In such a context, efforts to reduce the harmful effects of alcohol use are mainly focused on the demand side of the market, emphasising individual behaviours and preferences; and less focused on the supply side, which is dominated by producers. As a consequence, public policies to limit alcohol use tend to focus on the choices of vulnerable individual drinkers and call for responsible drinking. In effect this provides producers with a “free pass” to pursue and develop their strategies to sustain consumption.
 
50% of alcohol production is in the hands of “informal” small producers
Shifting the policy emphasis to focus equally on the demand and supply side of the alcohol beverages market is not straightforward. Although nearly half of the of the world's alcohol supply is dominated by giant producers, more than 50% is in the hands of ‘informal’ home and local producers. At the national level the industry comprises large and small beer, wine or spirit producers or importers, as well as bars, restaurants and a variety of retail outlets, which markets alcohol to the public. These players have diverging interests as well as interests in common in regard to policy frameworks. There is a dearth of reliable information on the industry and the principal sources of information come from market research firms and business journalism.  
 
Large global fast-growing market
The alcohol beverages market is large, global and fast growing. According to an April 2018 report by Transparency Market Research, in 2017 the market was worth US$1,205bn and is expected to expand at a CAGR of 6.4% and reach US$2,000bn by the end of 2025. Recent consolidation in the industry puts a significant and increasing proportion of alcohol production, distribution and marketing in the hands of a few giant corporations, which dominate national, regional and global markets and wield considerable political influence. Mergers and acquisitions are expected to continue, so the consolidation of the industry is expected to continue.

The market is driven by increasing urbanization, the global young-adult demographic, high and growing disposable incomes and increasing consumer demand for premium and super premium beverages. The latest figures suggest that the average alcohol use in the UK is about 9.7 litres per adult, which compares with 8.8 litres for adults in 34-member countries of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development  (OEDC), and ranks the UK 16th out of the OEDC countries. Since 1970, alcohol consumption has decreased by an average of 15% across OEDC countries, while in the UK it has risen 14% over the same period. Alcohol use has declined 69% in Italy, 48% in France, 36% in Spain and 30% in Germany, but has increased 51% in Ireland. Consumption of alcohol per head in the UK has fallen by about 17% since its recent peak in 2004. But that followed a steep rise.

A study reported in 2015 in the International Journal of Advertising suggests that advertising has little impact on how much we drink, but it is effective at influencing what we drink. ‘Premiumization’ is a term used in the industry to describe how spirit brands have had success convincing consumers that they should drink “higher quality” and more expensive beverages. An example of this is the recent boom in the sale of gin, which corresponded with the industries premiumization strategies that linked gin with “fashionable” early 20th century style.
 
UK alcohol taxes far exceed the costs to public services
 
The “free-pass” enjoyed by alcohol beverages corporations is strengthened by the relative lack of public scrutiny they receive. This might be partly explained by the fact that governments benefit significantly from alcohol related taxes and duty. Consider Britain. In 2016 the UK government made nearly £3.4bn in tax revenue from spirits; beer sales made the UK government £3.3bn in 2017. Some 60% of the price of a pint of beer is taken in VAT and alcohol duty, while VAT on the price of a bottle of gin is 76%. Wine is the biggest earner for the UK exchequer yielding over £4bn in taxes from sales in 2016. These sums accord with a September 2015 Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA) study on alcohol taxes, which suggests that the annual revenue generated from alcohol taxes in the UK is  “illogical and excessive.”  Rather than tax alcohol the UK government taxes drinks. For instance, a unit of alcohol is taxed at 28p if it happens to be in a glass of whisky but only 8p if it is in a pint of cider. Further, if the cider is strong, the tax is 7p but if it is fizzy the tax is 34p. The tax on a unit of alcohol in a glass of wine is 20p, but if wine is sparkling, the tax is 25p. Confused? The structure of alcohol excise taxes is partly restricted by an EU Directive, which sets out different tax rates for different alcoholic beverages.

Revenues from UK alcohol taxes and duty far exceed the actual direct costs of alcohol-related health and crime issues. According to the IEA study, the UK exchequer collects about £10bn a year in alcohol taxes while the direct costs of alcohol related problems to the health, police, prison services, welfare system and judiciary, amount to some £4.6bn per year. Although studies that report cost-of-alcohol data are notoriously unreliable, the IEA suggests that British drinkers contribute about £6.5bn each year to the UK exchequer and believes that, even within the current constraints, the UK tax system could more effectively target problem drinking. In a February 2017 paper the IEA describes a suggested reform of the UK’s alcohol tax policy.

 
Takeaways
 
Findings of the 2018 study published in The Lancet suggest that risks from alcohol start from any level of regular drinking and rise with the amount being consumed and any amount of regular alcohol use can significantly shorten your life. This echoes a 2010 study also published in The Lancet, which suggested that because alcohol is so widely available it is more harmful than heroin and crack cocaine.

This commentary reaffirms the global epidemic of disease, injury, social problems and death caused by alcohol and suggests an explanation why for decades governments have failed to effectively limit alcohol use.
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Mike Farrar

Independent management consultant

Mike Farrar is an independent management consultant and former Chief Executive of the NHS Confederation. He joined the organisation in May 2011.

Mike was chief executive of the North West England SHA from May 2006 to April 2011. He was previously chief executive of West Yorkshire and South Yorkshire Strategic Health Authorities, chief executive of Tees Valley Health Authority and head of primary care at the Department of Health.

Mike was also a board member of Sport England, and in August 2009 was appointed as National Tsar for Sport and Health. Mike was also awarded the CBE in 2005 for services to the NHS and is an honorary fellow of the University of Central Lancashire.


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