By Laura MacInnis
GENEVA, Jan 25 (Reuters) - World Health Organisation (WHO) experts will recommend ways to fight dangers linked to alcohol, including heart and liver disease, road accidents, suicides and sexually-transmitted infections, a spokeswoman said on Friday.
The United Nations agency’s executive board this week endorsed efforts to raise awareness about the risks of injury, violence and illness from the harmful use of alcohol, especially by young people and pregnant women, Fadela Chaib said.
The 34-member board agreed the WHO should draft a global strategy to reduce those threats. It may include guidance on the marketing, pricing and distribution of alcoholic drinks, as well as health worker training and public awareness campaigns.
The strategy, to be completed in two years, would aim particularly to protect "all at-risk populations such as young people and those affected by the harmful drinking of others," Chaib told a news briefing.
The WHO’s 193 member states would need to back the proposal at their World Health Assembly in May for work on the new strategy to get underway. This step is generally a formality.
In 2003, the WHO clinched an international treaty aimed at curbing tobacco use through stronger warnings on cigarette packages and limits on advertising and sponsorship.
Nordic countries raised concerns about the public health hazards from alcohol to the WHO more than three years ago.
A report presented to the executive board found that harmful drinking caused 2.3 million premature deaths worldwide each year, accounting for nearly 4 percent of global deaths.
It was cited as "a major avoidable risk factor" for cardiovascular diseases, liver cirrhosis and various cancers, and a contributor to the spread of diseases including HIV/AIDS.
Alcohol has also been associated with traffic crashes, suicides, crimes, violence, unemployment and absenteeism. Young people prone to drinking to intoxication and heavy episodic drinking were found to be particularly vulnerable.
The WHO advisory board emphasised that any recommendations made needed to take into account the cultural differences between countries regarding alcohol, whose consumption is forbidden under some religions including Islam.
The Global Alcohol Producers’ Group, a network of 16 leading spirits and wine companies including Asahi Breweries (2502.T) of Japan, India’s United Breweries (UBHL.BO), U.S. wine-maker Constellation Brands (STZ.N) and Molson Coors Brewing (TAP.N), welcomed the WHO move which it called "a positive step".
Abigail Jones, speaking on behalf of the producers, said it was important that any guidance produced make room for a variety of approaches to confronting the dangerous uses of alcohol.
"It is a very complex arena, but there is definitely a role for the WHO to play in helping outline the most appropriate approaches," Jones said. "There is a place for all of these measures to be looked at." (Editing by Janet Lawrence)