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OECD warns Germany to cut down on booze

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OECD warns Germany to cut down on booze
A man drinking whiskey in a Frankfurt bar. Photo: DPA
16:03 CEST+02:00
As some of the biggest boozers among rich countries' citizens, Germans have been warned that they should cut down on alcohol to safeguard their health and save the taxpayer money.

In 2012, Germans drank significantly more than the average for people in the wealthy countries in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), at 11 litres of pure alcohol per person compared with 9.1 litres.

That put them in 9th place in a table of OECD and associated countries, falling short of the rich world's biggest boozers in Estonia, Austria and France, but in the same league as Hungary, Russia and the UK. 

While Germans have cut down in the last few years – 1980's figure was 16.5 litres of pure alcohol – they're still exposing themselves to a lot of health risks by overindulging.

“Harmful consumption bears a heavy cost on individuals and on society,” OECD Director-General Angel Gurria said in a speech in Paris on Tuesday announcing latest alcohol study.

“When people consume too much alcohol too quickly, they seriously damage their health and put other people's lives at risk, imposing huge costs on our economies.”

Heavy drinking is extremely concentrated in Germany, with the 20 percent of people who drink the most consuming 60 percent of the country's total alcohol intake – comparable levels to the UK or Ireland, but far short of Hungarian problem drinkers' 90 percent share.

OECD figures show that highly-educated German men and women were the most likely to overstep weekly limits.

Well-educated men were half as likely again as the less-educated to be problem drinkers at 15.2 percent compared with 10.6 percent, while well-educated women twice as likely, at 9.2 percent compared with 4.3 percent for less well-educated women.

How to fight heavy drinking

Gurria argues that all OECD countries should introduce a multi-pronged strategy to fight heavy drinking, “combining regulation with medical intervention and price strategies”.

That would help to hit World Health Assembly targets of reducing harmful drinking by 10 percent by 2025, he said.

With a lot of slack in its tax and regulatory framework, Germany could make some quick improvements.

Tax on beer is low and there are no restrictions on sales of beer and wine to people aged between 16 and 18 or limits on time or location of sales.

Young people are particularly in need of attention in Germany, as rates of dangerous drinking have remained steady among people under 35 while shrinking in older groups.

But the country has made some of the steps the OECD recommends, including limiting advertising of alcohol products and their placement within shops.

Gurria acknowledged that measures to fight problem drinking would hit less at-risk people too.

“How do [governments] balance the rights of the relatively safe drinker with the costs imposed by heavy and hazardous drinkers?

“This is not a question that economics can answer, each country will have to weigh the evidence in their own circumstances.”

Thousands of lives to be saved

OECD experts argue that over 45,000 lives every year could be saved by introducing prevention programmes.

Taken together, medical interventions, tax increases, stricter regulation of opening hours and advertising and harsher laws on drink-driving could lead to gains of hundreds of thousands of healthy years of life across the country each year.

The programmes could both limit the immediate injuries associated with heavy drinking and reduce the numbers of people developing diseases like cancer or cirrhosis.

But the most effective form of prevention, interventions from doctors, would cost the country $228 million more than it would save in healthcare costs.

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