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EHYT calls for a comprehensive assessment of the impacts of alcohol policy changes on public health and economy

Juha Mikkonen, EHYT
Juha Mikkonen

22.02.2024 - EHYT Finnish Association for Substance Abuse Prevention is disappointed with the way alcohol policy changes documented in the government program are being handled as individual measures without assessing their collective impacts on health, well-being, and the national economy. Without a comprehensive view, we end up in a situation that increases the harms caused by alcohol and goes against the wishes of the citizens.

The Parliament will discuss on Thursday, February 22, 2024, the government's proposal, which would allow the sale of fermented alcoholic beverages with up to 8% alcohol by volume in grocery stores. Additionally, the Ministry of Social Affairs and Health is preparing a bill to allow home delivery.

"The government has not presented any comprehensive assessment of the numerous alcohol policy change proposals mentioned in the government program, taking into account the effects on public health and the economy, the working and functional capacity of the population, and the operating conditions of the Alko monopoly system. Such a comprehensive assessment is needed," emphasizes Juha Mikkonen, Executive Director of EHYT.

Experts and citizens support the current system

The World Health Organization WHO recommends limiting the availability of alcohol to prevent related harms. WHO and OECD state that alcohol availability, including the number of sales locations, significantly affects the occurrence of alcohol-related harms. Limiting availability and the number of sales locations is one of the most important and cost-effective measures to prevent alcohol-related harms.

The current alcohol sales system has proven effective and enjoys widespread support among citizens. Finnish attitudes towards alcohol policy are becoming stricter. According to the THL's Alcohol Policy Opinions 2024 survey, nearly 90 percent of Finns would prefer the sale of strong alcoholic beverages to continue to be a monopoly of Alko. The number of people supporting the sale of wines has decreased by ten percentage points in two years, and currently, less than half of the Finns wish for the sale of wines in grocery stores.

In 2022, Finland had 373 monopoly stores (Alko) but 6,317 holders of retail licenses for beverages with up to 5.5 percent alcohol, of which 1,444 were restaurants. Selling stronger alcohol in over 4,500 grocery stores, kiosks, and service stations would increase availability to citizens and negatively affect public health.

Alcohol results in billions of direct and indirect annual harm costs to Finnish society. Alcohol has two main effects on a functioning economy: first, it increases public sector costs, and second, it reduces the number of taxpayers.

"Are the benefits received by the retail and alcohol manufacturing industries in a sensible relation to the human and societal costs that the reform would impose on the entire country's public sector and working life?" Mikkonen asks.

Who will address the harms when the social and health sector is already burdened?

Only business operators financially benefiting from alcohol sales supported the proposed change to the alcohol law during the consultation round. In addition to the police, all social and health sector actors from welfare regions to organizations opposed the change.

The proposed legal change would add extra strain to the social and health system and welfare regions. Social and health services are already significantly burdened, and alcohol-related harms further increase this load. In 2022, substance use resulted in nearly 150,000 healthcare days in Finland, most of which were related to alcohol. Moreover, alcohol is a significant factor in over 200 diseases and accidents, increasing the burden on health and social services even more. In welfare regions, alcohol is the single largest cause of avoidable premature loss of life years.

Finland faces a shortage of approximately 25,000 nurses and practical nurses, and the current challenges for healthcare personnel include workplace safety issues and resource shortages due to substance use. Additionally, alcohol negatively impacts internal security and national security, tying up valuable authority resources, including those of the police and emergency services.

"The undeniable health harms caused by alcohol and their impact on society are clear. Decision-makers should comprehensively consider the impacts of potential changes in alcohol policy on health, the economy, and society as a whole before making decisions. Alcohol policy changes should not be viewed as individual measures," Mikkonen states.

Retail alcohol licenses and the number of monopoly system stores in Finland in 2022.
Retail alcohol licenses and the number of monopoly system stores in Finland in 2022.

Alcohol mortality in Finland, age-standardized mortality rate, total population (1/100,000).
Alcohol mortality in Finland, age-standardized mortality rate, total population (1/100,000).

Source: EHYT

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