The World Cup 2014 is great for many things but public health isn’t one of them

football and beer sign

Used under a Creative Commons license from Flickr (source)

by Steven McGinty

This month, the world’s attention has been unequivocally focused on Brazil, with the start of the 2014 World Cup. For many, the arrival of the #WorldCup has been four years in the waiting. However, for some, the potential negative consequences of the World Cup are of great concern.

Two of the main organisations to make their viewpoints known are Alcohol Concern and the BMJ. They both highlight that the increased consumption of alcohol will be damaging to public health, with increases both in alcohol related violence and emergency admissions. The medical evidence on irresponsible drinking seems clear enough, but the question is, what can be done to prevent this?

On the run up to the World Cup, the association between alcohol and the beautiful game was clear. As a result of the time difference, there have been a lot of late night matches, with some games beginning at 11pm UK time. This has led to a request for the UK Government to relax pub opening hours. In response, the government has allowed pubs to be open until 1am for England matches, as the World Cup has been deemed an event of  ‘exceptional national significance’.  Not everyone however has agreed with this decision, with Dr Clifford Mann, President of the College of Emergency Medicine, asserting that the relaxation of the law was an ‘unwelcome move’.

These polarised views emphasise an interesting point when it comes to policies aimed at reducing alcohol abuse and alcohol related harm. Primarily, whether policies should be directed towards the population as a whole, or targeted at a comparatively small group of harmful drinkers. This issue is considered in the Pushing the Majority report, which suggests that applying broad policies to change the drinking habits of the overall population is ineffective. It argues that harmful drinkers would benefit most from targeted specialised treatments, and that the only beneficiary of policies applied to the general population of drinkers, is the government through increased tax revenues.

Nevertheless, policies that target the majority are still seen as a good option by many politicians, medical professionals and the public. In June 2012, the Scottish Government became the first government in the UK to pass legislation introducing minimum unit pricing (MUP), setting the price of one unit of alcohol at 50p.It has been suggested that increasing one unit of alcohol to a minimum of 45p would lead to a reduction in 24,600 alcohol-related hospital admissions and 714 fewer deaths per year after ten years. This proposal hasn’t been without its critics, though, as the Scottish Government are still struggling to implement the new law due to challenges from the drinks industry. Moreover, in terms of public opinion, the response has been mixed, with 41% being in favour, compared to 35% against, and the rest being neither in favour nor against. Interestingly, the number of people in favour of minimum unit pricing starts to increase if the proposal is applied to specific alcoholic drinks.

So what should be done? If we look at the debate we can see that both sides present valid arguments and add useful contributions.  We can also see that this debate is likely to divide as people will undoubtedly bring their own philosophical and moral perspectives. For instance, many will take an approach based on rights and freedom of choice, where as others may take a more communal approach, focused on the reduction of harm. It is, therefore, important that policy decisions are based on evidence and that decisions are made on what is likely to, or has been, proven to work. A combination of policies which impact both the majority and the minority may be the best solution to tackling alcohol abuse and alcohol related harm.

To conclude, as Dr Clifford Mann highlights, the World Cup may have an impact on public health, but it also provides an opportunity to raise awareness of the problems of alcohol and to stimulate public debate.

The Idox Information Service will be keeping up to date with all the latest policy developments in alcohol policy to support professionals working in the field. We hold a wide selection of resources, as well as actively encourage our members to contact us to carry out literature searches on their behalf.

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