Alcohol and the future – three clear trends

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On 15 October, Systembolaget held Agenda 2015 – A crossroads for sustainable health, a conference on Swedish and global health issues. Alcohol was, of course, one of the focal areas and Agenda 2015 showed that we will need to handle a number of different alcohol-related challenges in the years ahead. Here are three of them.

1. Alcohol as a public health hazard

Alcohol poses a growing risk to public health and Europeans drink more than anyone else in the world. A survey published in the British medical journal, The Lancet11, showed that alcohol had entered the top ten list of mortality risk factors worldwide – and that Europeans drink more than anyone else in the world. Sweden is currently one of the country’s with the lowest rates of alcohol consumption, but that doesn’t mean that we don’t face challenges. Sweden has made considerable progress, both in relation to how things used to be and in comparison with other countries, but alcohol is still ranked seventh in mortality risk factors11.

A World Health Organisation (WHO) report from 201441 stated that general measures, such as high alcohol taxes and restricted availability, are the most effective tools for limiting alcohol consumption and alcohol-related harm. At Agenda 2015, alcohol researcher, Professor Robin Room, discussed the ways in which public attitudes towards alcohol are unrealistic in terms of the associated health risks. He proposed that we need a convention on alcohol control in precisely the same way as we have for tobacco.

2. Increased consumption by senior citizens

Today’s 75-year olds are travelling, thirsting to learn something new, and eager media consumers. Ingmar Skoog, Professor of Psychiatry and Director of the Centre for Ageing and Health at the University of Gothenburg stated, during the Agenda 2015 event, that 70 is, in many ways, the new 20 and that older women are drinking more alcohol than ever before12.

In 1976-77, only 1 per cent of 75-year old women were consuming alcohol at risky levels, that is the equivalent of 9 glasses of wine or more per week. 30 years later, this percentage had risen to 10 per cent. Drinking by older men has, admittedly, not risen at the same rate during this period, but the percentage whose consumption levels are risky is even higher, at 15 per cent12. And because older people are far more at risk of harm from alcohol than younger ones in a variety of ways, this is a trend that could have a substantial impact on public health.

3. Swedes’ attitudes to alcohol

Sören Holmberg, Senior Professor at the SOM (Society, Opinion, Media) Institute at the University of Gothenburg, was another speaker at the conference. He, together with his colleagues, David Karlsson and Lennart Weibull, have studied what perceptions of alcohol as a social problem mean in terms of the way in which alcohol policy measures are viewed. The SOM Institute’s research shows that the support for some liberalisation of alcohol policy noted in the early part of this century has reversed, and there is now a clear decline in this support13. Whilst we now drink alcohol on more occasions than before, we are drinking the same total amount as before, according to the Monitor survey17. The majority of Swedes believe that the primary consequences of alcohol consumption are positive or neutral for them – but negative for society13.

New research prize created

The creation by Systembolaget, in conjunction with its 60th anniversary, of Kunskapspriset (the Knowledge Award) for eminent alcohol research was also announced at Agenda 2015.