On 11–12 August 2006 the Thai Health Promotion Foundation and Stop Drink Network organised and hosted the Alcohol Policy Conference in Bangkok, Thailand. At the end of the conference The Asia Pacific Alcohol Policy Alliance was launched. It is the region’s first network of organizations with the mission of reducing health and social alcohol-related problems by promoting effective evidence-based alcohol policies independent of commercial interests.

The participants, drawn from organizations with an interest in alcohol issues in 18 countries in the SEARO and WPRO WHO regions, met at the Bangkok Alcohol Policy Conference. The meeting discussed the Draft Regional Alcohol Strategy for WPRO and heard a presentation from the SEARO representative on the principles underlying the Discussion Paper on Alcohol Policy Options. They acknowledged the importance of Regional Alcohol Strategy development in both Regions and felt that many aspects of the WPRO Strategy and the SEARO Discussion Paper clearly reflected evidence-based public health policies. The WHO secretariat members were congratulated on this work.

The participants acknowledged the consultation process which had been undertaken in the development of the WPRO Draft Alcohol Strategy, including a technical consultation, and opportunities for member states and NGO comment. They requested SEARO to undertake a similar process in the development of a Regional Strategy for the SEAR.

Role of the Alcohol Industry

Participants discussed the potential role of the alcohol industry as it might be represented in any Discussion Paper, Regional Strategy or future WHO Resolution. The participants in the meeting felt that involvement of these commercial interests in the formulation of alcohol policies is contra-indicated.

This was based on many experiences at national and regional level in which involvement of the industry in policy formulation had led to emphasis on ineffective policies and failure to agree on inclusion of effective policies.

The meeting proposed that an appropriate formulation regarding the role of the industry for the Strategies and Resolutions (and to guide the WHO approach more generally) would be:

  • Given the conflict of interest between the industry’s commercial responsibilities to shareholders and those of ensuring public health, involvement of the commercial industry is not appropriate in the development of public policy on alcohol.
  • Any mention of private sector interests as potential stakeholders in the development of alcohol policy should clearly exclude any private sector interests with a potential conflict of interest with public health (such as those involved in the production, distribution, and marketing of alcohol).

Economic Treaties and Agreements

Participants discussed experiences in the region in which economic agreements and treaties had dramatically increased availability of imported commercial alcohol with increased marketing and decreased price. This had contributed to the very fast increases in consumption, particularly among young people, and an increase in alcohol-related harm. Participants therefore wished to see clear reference to the need for regional co-operation in order to exclude all alcohol goods and services from economic agreements and treaties. Where alcohol has already been included in trade agreements and treaties, governments may be urged to use alcohol excise taxes to compensate for reduced import tariffs and to specify public health objectives clearly in order to protect controls on marketing and distribution which may otherwise be challenged under the conditions of the economic agreements and treaties.

The WPRO Strategy was acknowledged for its inclusion of mention of economic treaties (4.3.3). However, participants felt that these statements did not reflect strongly enough the importance of the issue for the region. It was noted that the exclusion of alcohol from an economic agreement in the region (PICTA) was strongly supported by the NGO community in the region and that the strategy should reflect this as an appropriate measure.

It was felt that it was essential to stress that economic treaties and agreements should not lead to increased alcohol related harm by diluting existing control polices or preventing the implementation of new evidence based policies. This can be achieved by not treating alcohol as an ordinary commodity.

In his opening address to the conference, Professor Dr. Suchai Charoenratanakul pointed out that the developing world experiences high alcohol morbidity and mortality and that alcohol abuse is one of the greatest health-demoting behaviours in the Asia-Pacific region.

Professor Charoenratanakul continued: “Conventionally, countries in the Asia-Pacific region are easily differentiated in terms of alcohol consumption level. Consumption in those countries with well known high-consumption rate, such as Australia, New Zealand, Korea and Japan, are still remained high in the past few decades. In other words those countries have a very mature alcohol markets.

At the same time, a fast growth in alcohol consumption rate is seen in previously dry countries, in parallel with the economic growth. Increases in alcohol consumption in AsiaPacific countries, particularly in China, India and Thailand, make the Asia-Pacific region one of the brightest markets for the alcohol industry.

The marketing strategy of international alcohol company into this emerging region, particularly under the umbrella of the freemarket system, the aggressive marketing strategy, and an increase in the popularity of western-style and branded beverages, have changed the way alcohol is consumed in this region, particularly among youth and young adults.

As a result, youth and female habitual drinkers are more common in many parts of the region and raise public concern. Of course alcoholic beverages are not ordinary goods; the increases in its consumption simply imply increasing in alcohol-related violent on the other.

1.8 million lives per year or 5,000 lives per day are lost from alcohol consumption worldwide. Many of these losses are preventable. Thus, an effective alcohol policy framework with evidence-based strategies and evidence-based programs, as declared by the 58th World Health Assembly, are urgently needed.

However, the effective policy cannot be implemented and copied from other countries around the world. It should be coordinated and synergistic with existing public health infrastructures in each country and the region as a whole.

In this globalized world, any efforts will be limited by social factors, economic factors and geographical factors. A modern alcohol policy should be participated with a widerange of relevant actors from public health and other non-commercial interests. In addition, contributions from local and global actors to set up the policy are really helpful.

The need for health voice on alcohol has never been greater than today. Thus we are here to play our important role, hand in hand, in developing, and supporting an effective strategy to reduce alcoholrelated problems. This is for the future of our own destiny.”

Bankok Alcohol Policy Conference 2006