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Alcohol is on the agenda. But how high?

Read Eurocare vice-president Lauri Beekman’s post

During recent years we have witnessed important developments in alcohol policy. European Alcohol Strategy, World Health Organization’s global strategy, as well as many groundbraking research news that have widened the meaning of alcohol related harm. Alcohol is up on the agenda. But how high?

Almost 1200 people from governmental institutions, universities, research institutes and NGOs gathered to the First Global Alcohol Policy Conference (GAPC) in Bangkok, Thailand, around the topic of WHO global alcohol strategy under the headline „From the Global Alcohol Strategy to National and Local Action“.

WHO was one of the co-hosts and in conjunction of the conference they also organized a special meeting for WHO national counterparts on implementation of global strategy. WHO was well represented and we could hear some strong and inspiring ideas, reassuring that there are people in World Health Organisation who really care about this matter. But how was this message sent forward for the outside public?

We are living at the age of social media and most of the big global and international institutions use these channels very actively to raise the awareness and support for topics they are dealing with. WHO is no exception in this. I´m one of the 353 433 followers who they have in Twitter. For instance on February 24th WHO tweeted 42 times. What made me think was the fact that during the Bangkok conference days there was not a single tweet about that conference or alcohol policy. As Valentines Day happened to be during those days WHO reminded their followers that you cant get HIV from kissing, hugging or shaking hands. Tweets about different meetings on different topics but nothing about a conference that WHO co-hosted in Thailand and that had their global strategy on very center.

Of course, I dont think that Director-General says what the WHO should tweet about. I´m sure that there is someone who gives his/hers best to inform those over 300 000 followers about what WHO is doing and where they want to point people´s attention. But whatever the reason this historical alcohol policy conference did´nt get any mention.

At the closing ceremony dr Shekhar Saxena from WHO said something that made me also think. While he said that the conference turned out to be a real success, he admitted that in fact WHO had been a bit wary to link themselves with this conference and to attach their name as official co-hosts. It almost sounded like a slip of the tongue. First of all, why should WHO be afraid or even hesitate in supporting this kind of action? And secondly, why mention that after such an event?

Couple of months ago at the Northern Dimension Partnership in Public Health and Social Well-Being (NDPHS) meeting in St Petersburg, Russia, a NDPHS Action Statement for implementation of the European Strategy for Prevention and Control of NCD-s was accepted. The document ( also includes a big list of WHO and UN documents which all Northern Dimension Partnership (and of course not only) countries have endorsed. It was Pekka Puska, former president of the World Heart Federation, who gave voice to the fact that these documents does´nt seem to matter much to many governments, despite the fact that they have signed and thus agreed with the principles and suggested actions that are described.

Now, of course those documents are important and it is a sign of success that we have them. But it seems to be way too easy for governments and international institutions to accept these good ideas and ignore the need to invest in implementing these principles.

One example from my home country Estonia. As members of EU and WHO and also NDPHS we have agreed with all these documents. Just couple of weeks ago, answering questions before the Parliament our Minister of Justice Kristen Michal was asked about problems with underage drinking and about possible alcohol advertising ban. He said that in his eyes talks about ad ban is pure populism and has nothing to do with solving the problem. Here it is what it comes down to – what the current politicians personally believe in. We hope that the policies are decided by these strategies and action statements but too oftenly it´s based on what the politician believes or likes. Thats it.

It is the civil society who has to link the dots and to remind politicians that their duty is to serve the interests and well-being of the people implementing policies that are evidence based and not relying on their personal understanding or in more than many cases, ignorance.