This is a consultation response to a global action plan by the World Health Organization to reduce the harmful use of alcohol, published by the WHO here. The text was written by our researchers Weimin Chen and Kai Weiss.
The World Health Organization (WHO) recently published the Working document for development of an action plan to strengthen implementation of the Global Strategy to Reduce the Harmful Use of Alcohol which details the WHO global action plan to re-position its goals toward alcohol within the framework of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. In the working paper, the agency lays out recommendations for taxation on alcohol at all possible levels of governance as well as bans on the advertisement of alcohol in realizing those goals.
Compared to the 2010 version of the Global Strategy, this version sets a puzzling new direction that de- emphasizes the public health perspective of the harmful effects of alcohol and rather focuses instead on the commercial side, targeting the sale and distribution, availability and access, and marketing aspects. Along with illogical lines of reasoning and the glaring overstep of authority that would occur if the WHO were to implement it, the plan has the potential to cause additional harm and bring about unintended consequences if it pursues this ill-conceived direction.
The taxation of alcohol is first in the line of unintended consequences. Most directly, such a tax would affect the whole supply chain with increases in prices paid by consumers, whether they drink responsibly or not, and strike revenues of brewers and distillers of alcoholic beverages, bars, restaurants, and shops that carry the beverages, and advertising agencies that promote them. Aside from the dubious claims of taxation for the sake of revenues toward remedying the harmful effects of alcohol, this type of policy is inherently prohibitive in its scope. As seen during the time of Prohibition in the United States, the black market and involvement of violent criminal organizations caused enormous harm across American society. In more recent times, the criminalization of cannabis gave rise to legal alternatives in the form of a synthetic version that turned out to have a range of adverse effects. And similar efforts when it comes to tobacco has equally incentivized more dubious actors while penalizing responsible businesses.
The 2020 working paper makes less of a mention of illicit and informal alcohol in the world than the 2010 version despite its implications. If the goal is to reduce the harmful effects of alcohol, then minimizing the role of harmful consumption would be ideal, e.g., through a great focus on better health care and stricter drunk-driving laws. Unfortunately, the policies recommended in the working paper would likely have the opposite effect as suggested by historical example where illegal or informal alternatives are sought in the wake of interventionist policies that throttle availability.
At the heart of the matter, the 2020 Global Strategy problematizes the consumption of alcohol as a whole rather than the harm that can potentially come about due to alcohol consumption. The wrongdoing of a drunk driver does not imply the necessity to punish all those who responsibly consume alcohol. This working paper’s recommendations essentially aim to cut down the general consumption of alcohol in an effort to cut down on the many real deleterious effects that alcohol can cause rather than drawing up ways to address those problems.
Philosophically, the issue encompasses the extent of the role of governance bodies such as state governments and intergovernmental organizations in determining the merits of the various things that people can ingest. In his 1927 book Liberalism: The Classical Tradition, Ludwig von Mises takes the argument to its logical conclusions, stating, “Why should not what is valid for these poisons be valid also for nicotine, caffeine, and the like? Why should not the state generally prescribe which foods may be indulged in and which must be avoided because they are injurious?”
While the proponents of a global alcohol tax for the purpose of curbing the harmful effects of alcohol consumption may seriously take such questions into account, they highlight obvious avenues toward infringement on the freedom and responsibility of individual persons in choosing what to consume. Indeed, such paternalistic efforts deny individuals of their personal capability to make their own decisions and be responsible citizens.
As opponents of government’s role in in lifestyle matters have often argued in the past, this working paper also shows how no area of consumption and lifestyle is save from regulatory attempts. First it was tobacco – which restrictions and prohibitions the WHO’s new effort on alcohol seem modelled after – then sugar, and now alcohol. The question that naturally arises is what were to come next, as this ripple effect could slowly encompass all types of decisions that should more generally be the consumer’s choice to make.
In short, the WHO may release a working paper for what it deems proper for the future of alcohol consumption in the world, but it would be hard-pressed to justify such an authority to enforce it.