Health ministers have agreed to try to curb binge drinking and other growing forms of excessive alcohol use through higher taxes on alcoholic drinks and tighter marketing regulations.
The global strategy to reduce the harmful use of alcohol was adopted by consensus at the annual assembly of the World Health Organisation (WHO).
The recommendations, drawn up after two years of debate, are not binding but serve as guidance to WHO's 193 member states.
"Alcohol contributes to accidents, mental health problems, social problems and harms third parties," said Bernt Bull, a senior advisor in Norway's health ministry. Nordic countries spearheaded the initiative at the United Nations agency.
A relatively high excise tax on alcoholic beverages and regulations limiting their availability was helping to reduce alcohol-related diseases in Norway, he said.
Alcohol a major risk factor
The WHO estimates that risks linked to alcohol cause 2.5 million deaths a year from heart and liver disease, road accidents, suicides and various cancers -- 3.8% of all deaths. It is the third leading risk factor for premature deaths and disabilities worldwide.
"The harmful use of alcohol has a serious effect on public health and is considered to be one of the main risk factors for poor health globally," the WHO strategy document says.
There is strong evidence that a low limit for blood alcohol concentration (0.02 to 0.05%) is effective in reducing drink-driving casualties, it says.
"The more affordable alcohol is -- the lower its price, or the more disposable income people have -- the more it is consumed and the greater level of related harm in both high- and low-income countries," it says.
"Modelling shows that setting a minimum price per unit gram of alcohol reduces consumption and alcohol-related harm."
Melvyn Freeman of South Africa's health department said: "The negative consequences of alcohol misuse which place a burden on families, societies and health systems have been ignored too long despite the fact that the burden is growing."
A recent survey in South Africa found 29 % of high school students had engaged in binge drinking in the previous month, up 6% from a poll six years earlier, he said.
Excessive use of alcohol also led to high-risk sex, including with multiple partners, he said.
South Africa had a high prevalence of fetal alcohol syndrome, according to Freeman. The WHO clinched a global health treaty controlling tobacco in 2003 and is also now focused on tackling obesity. - (Reuters Health, May 2010)