When asked to fund “global health” efforts, money should gravitate toward disease eradication, water provision/purification, and pollution abatement. But when donors (read: taxpayers) don’t get the choice on where their money is spent, bureaucrats at the helm of international organizations lose all sense of priority.
Case in point: the World Health Organization’s effort against conditions not caused by infectious agents, i.e. non-communicable diseases.
On its website, the WHO lists “tobacco use, physical inactivity, the harmful use of alcohol and unhealthy diets,” brought on “rapid unplanned urbanization, globalization of unhealthy lifestyles and population aging.”
The global bureaucracy’s attempt to branch out from traditional disease-fighting is ill-advised and reflects a deep misunderstanding of the industries and processes under scrutiny. Proposed taxation and regulation of “sin products” will only harm the global poor, while fueling black markets and other illegal activities.
To bureaucrats leading the charge against intolerable behaviors such as drinking and lounging around, absolutely no fun need be permitted. Remember, kids (sorry- I mean “adults”), alcohol has no discernible health benefits and can kill you through a wide array of scary diseases. There’s next-to-no discussion in the WHO’s recently released 2018 “Global status report on alcohol and health 2018” report on the benefits of moderate consumption, and the notion of “responsible drinking” is “strategically ambiguous and against the public health interest.”
One study about the benefits of light drinking finds its way in the report (on page 130), quickly dismissed by the authors as biased toward the alcohol industry. But wait! The authors claim that light drinking can have a beneficial effect on “diabetes mellitus, ischaemic heart disease, ischaemic stroke” in Tables 4.1-3. So might “responsible drinking” be plausible for sufferers of some of the world’s most common ailments?
Regardless of the WHO’s muddled health messaging, the solutions are obvious: “enact and enforce restrictions on the physical availability of retailed alcohol” and “establish minimum prices for alcohol where applicable” (on pg. 27). It shouldn’t be too surprising that strictly regulating or hiking the price of an in-demand product leads to illicit shenanigans.
Americans in particular have grown up learning and watching movies of mobster Al Capone build an empire off bootlegging alcohol. Writing about America’s failed 13-year experiment with Prohibition, The Guardian’s Dominic Sandbrook notes, “The law had only been in operation for an hour when the police recorded the first attempt to break it, with six armed men stealing some $100,000-worth of ‘medicinal’ whisky from a train in Chicago.”
Yet in the report, black markets barely even make an appearance. In the two pages (112 and 113) they devote to the subject (out of 137 total pages), the organization acknowledges that “unrecorded alcohol may contain higher ethanol content and potential contaminants” and “the low cost can promote heavy drinking” can complicate global mitigation efforts. But the WHO doesn’t make an attempt to tie in higher prices and restrictions with illicit use; all we need to address the issue are tax stamps and greater surveillance.
That’s not to say, of course, that the judgments of the WHO carry the same weight as the U.S. federal government. But the United Nations’ sub-agency carries an aura of scientific authority and offers various assistance for countries willing to play ball with them.
The proposed program budget for the 2018-2019 biennium includes more than $350 million for battling noncommunicable diseases. Much of this goes toward “regional offices to support countries in scaling up interventions to deal with noncommunicable diseases,” and the WHO notes that countries’ proposed noncommunicable disease budgets are increasing year-over-year.
America’s overall biennial tab to the WHO nears $120 million, but taxpayers are left in the dark as to how much of this goes toward promoting prohibition.
Given the United States’ considerable clout in funding both the WHO and the United Nations, America should use its dollars to push for reform. American leaders should insist that the WHO refrains from pushing failed substance control policies, and instead double down efforts of actual disease eradication. Even if the WHO can’t cut out their prohibition addiction to fund things like diarrhoeal diseases, they can at least clamp down on ludicrous travel expenditures. With some straightforward budgeting changes, the WHO can return to the arena of “public health” stronger and more capable than ever.