On April 14, the World Health Organization (WHO) released a statement and fact sheet on alcohol and COVID-19. There’s no subtlety here:
Alcohol is known to be harmful to health in general, and is well understood to increase the risk of injury and violence, including intimate partner violence, and can cause alcohol poisoning. At times of lockdown during the COVID-19 pandemic, alcohol consumption can exacerbate health vulnerability, risk-taking behaviors, mental health issues and violence. WHO/Europe reminds people that drinking alcohol does not protect them from COVID-19, and encourages governments to enforce measures which limit alcohol consumption.
Blunt but reasonable. But the accompanying six-page fact sheet, “Alcohol and COVID-19: What You Need to Know,” goes beyond a sober warning and, frankly, into moralizing territory:
- “Avoid alcohol altogether so that you do not undermine your own immune system and health and do not risk the health of others.” (Page 2)
- “Make sure that children and young people do not have access to alcohol and do not let them see you consume alcohol – be a role model.” (Page 2)
- “Monitor the screen time of your children (including TV), as such media are flooded with alcohol advertising and promotion; they also spread harmful information that may stimulate early initiation and increased consumption of alcohol.” (Page 3)
- “Your time, money and other resources are better invested in buying healthy and nutritious food that will maintain good health and enhance your immune system response. For further ideas, take a look at the food and nutrition tips during self- quarantine issued by WHO.” (Page 3)
- “Instead of consuming alcohol to pass your time at home, try an indoor workout. Physical activity strengthens the immune system and overall – from both a short-term and a long-term perspective – is a highly beneficial way of spending a period of quarantine.” (Page 4)
- “The present situation is a unique opportunity to quit drinking, or at least to cut down considerably, as various social cues and peer pressure situations, such as parties, friends’ gatherings, restaurants and clubs, are (by necessity) avoidable.” (Page 5)
I admit I’m a WHO fan from way back. In my environmental advocacy days, I could always count on WHO to say things that US government agencies wouldn’t. The organization’s precautionary approach – avoid doing harm rather than mitigating it afterward – led them to classify hundreds of substances as suspect long before US EPA did. WHO’s bluntness was a help in pushing for legislation like the Food Quality Protection Act, which was intended to usher in a new way of setting exposure limits for toxic chemicals.
But there’s a difference between asking governments to protect public health when it comes to things largely out of our everyday control (food and environment) and bullying people into making what WHO considers “better” choices in their daily lives. It looks to me like WHO is using its well-earned bully pulpit to elevate the issue of alcohol consumption and sees the coronavirus crisis as an opportunity to engage in demagoguery, using anti-smoking campaigns as a model. It’s a little hard to take, especially when we know that even so-called “light” smoking will reduce the length of your life by a much more significant amount and cause far more health problems than moderate drinking will.
As I mentioned before, I understand that current isolation measures could encourage people to drink more than they otherwise might. We should all be vigilant about our own behaviors and helping others who are feeling the strain of lockdown requirements. Certainly, medical and mental health professionals are within their rights to suggest that their patients reduce/eliminate alcohol consumption if they show signs of stress or anxiety, especially when isolation can encourage some individuals to abuse alcohol. But I’m not sure most of those professionals would try to generalize to the world at large beyond standard advice about moderation.
I’m a non-smoker and I appreciate laws that protect me from second-hand exposure outside my home. Laws against public drinking and serving already intoxicated people similarly protect from the dangers posed by others who are intoxicated. And as a society we have laws that punish those who engage in harmful actions regardless of motivation or circumstances. Still, as long as we stay within legal parameters, we get to decide on our habits and behaviors.
So, thanks for the facts about alcohol, WHO. I’d even be OK with it if you added a “we believe that…” when you decided to do some (small amount of) editorializing. But please don’t present me with your choices for clean living as if they were requirements for my life. And, really, have a little perspective when we are all trying to get on as best we can during this extraordinary time.