Intro to NordAN Copenhagen conference
The theme of this year's NordAN conference in Copenhagen will be "Alcohol and family life." There is no doubt that alcohol affects more than just the drinker. Of course, family members are the most directly affected, but society as a whole bears the burden as well. There were some areas where the problem increased during the COVID-19 period. As the pandemic put people into unexpected situations (staying home in a stressful situation, uncertain about their work and health), many behaved in ways that were harmful to both themselves and their closest family members.
We also witnessed short periods when alcohol availability was heavily limited or even removed. Cross-border trade is a serious issue in this region, so closing the borders had a significant impact. The question is whether we can learn much from it, given the pandemic's unusual circumstances. Closing alcohol sales at pubs and restaurants would definitely reduce general consumption, but how much of this could be replicated in a normal situation? This is something the researchers will undoubtedly investigate in their future work. However, we will examine what we already know about how this period changed the home setting.
A CHALLENGE TO ADDRESS: While general alcohol use was mostly reduced, particular issues, such as family violence, were on the rise during these trying times.
Low-risk drinking guidelines and legal age limit
The concept of low-risk drinking will be one of the underlying themes of our conference. In the beginning of this year, the Danish Health Authority updated low-risk drinking guidelines, which are now sharper in several areas. It is recommended that children and young people under 18 do not drink alcohol. There are also new consumption limits for adults aged 18 or over. In addition, a new benchmark applies: 10-4. The rationale is that no alcohol consumption is entirely risk-free for health. But you can minimise your health risk by drinking no more than 10 drinks a week. You should, however, consume these 10 drinks over the course of the week, so that you do not drink more than four in one day.
Similarly, the government planned to raise the legal age limit to 18 from 16, but the political parties weren't yet on board. We can see here an excellent example of how the low-risk drinking guidelines lead the way and send a stronger message than existing legislation. The process is ongoing, and as the Danish Cancer Society's survey showed, the public supports that change.
A CHALLENGE FOR THE FUTURE: Will the public's backing persuade the parties to raise the legal drinking age?
Are our social service systems working well for people with addictions and other alcohol problems?
Addictions can be very difficult to overcome without the proper support. Many people who suffer from addictions also have other underlying mental health conditions that can make a recovery all the more difficult. That's where social services come in. Or they don't.
Various social and health services in the Nordic countries provide a safety net that many other countries strive to achieve. Yet only a fraction of those who need help are reached due to the size of the problem. For example, a recent study in Sweden found that only about 2–2.5 per cent of all individuals with alcohol dependence in Sweden receive alcohol medication. Harms caused by prenatal alcohol exposure are another example of substantial inequities in both the acknowledgement of the problem and the services offered.
The field of social and health services will be discussed in terms of what's available, what's needed, and what's missing.
A CHALLENGE FOR THE FUTURE: What are the political and policy barriers to reaching out to more people in need and reducing disparities in our countries?
Drug policy here and elsewhere
How did we get here? Despite our growing awareness of healthy living and what impacts our bodies, there are still many lifestyle and political ideologies that seek to open new doors, which will inevitably bring new problems.
Earlier this summer, the NordAN board wrote to our governments, urging them to consider Germany's plans to legalise cannabis and the implications for other countries. "As we understand, there seems to be a violation of both the UN conventions as well as the Schengen Treaty that affect other countries. The four freedoms of the internal market will also be affected," the letter stated.
On October 26th Germany set out plans to legalise cannabis, a move Chancellor Olaf Scholz's government said would make Germany one of the first countries in Europe to do so. As you will hear at the Copenhagen conference, this is feared to cause a domino effect in Europe. We will also turn out attention to North America which have now experimented with this for many years and there are lessons we should learn from.
A CHALLENGE FOR THE FUTURE: If legalisation appears to become a new norm, what could keep our countries from following that road?
The future of alcohol policy in our region, in Europe and globally
The national level of alcohol policy is the most crucial. This is where actual changes take place. Sometimes existing international agreements and frameworks support that national decision-making. But the political will in a specific country is, in the end, what really matters.
We do know that in alcohol policy there are areas where the local decision cannot solve the problem. Cross-border trade and advertising are two examples where a broader agreement is needed. Labelling and health warnings are others where international permission (or at least acceptance) is required.
Countries, especially neighbouring countries, influence each other. So, how could we improve that cooperation between Nordic and Baltic countries? How can we as a region help European and global efforts? And what benefits could we gain from European and other international action plans? These are some of the questions our final panel discussions will cover.
A CHALLENGE FOR THE FUTURE: What happened to the Nordic/Baltic cooperation on alcohol policy at the level of governments and parliaments?
Lauri Beekmann, Executive director