spiritsNEWS February 2020

The biggest risk? Not understanding it…

Last month, an independent scientific committee consisting of 11 well-known researchers from various disciplines came up with best practice guidance about risk perception and risk management in contemporary societies. They published a document containing 11 Principles to help citizens and policy makers achieve a better understanding of complex decisions involving risks and uncertainties. Amongst others, the experts distinguished between involuntary and voluntary risks, including life-style risks (Principle 1); between relative and absolute risks (Principle 9); between the risk of harm and benefit, as well as the empirical impossibility to prove zero risk (Principle 4). They advised against comparison to zero-risk (Principle 5) and underlined the difference between risk and uncertainty (principle 7).

The principles and recommendations contrasted strangley, though sharply, with a report released by the World Health Organisation (WHO) at around the same time. The report noted, inter alia, that ‘any alcohol use is associated with some risk, even if the individual risk may be low with low consumption. From a public health perspective, there is no level of consumption at which no risks are involved’.

Seen against the background of the 11 best practice Principles, WHO’s statement seems to fall dramatically short of most of them. Firstly, as stated by the experts, ‘risk elimination in public life is rarely sensible and potentially increases danger’ (p.8, emphasis added). Secondly, the statement makes a comparison to an empirically unprovable ‘zero risk’. And thirdly, the statement does not distinguish between benefits and harms, but maintains that individual risk may be low with low consumption. Indeed, according to the contemporary available evidence, people with low levels of drinking risk to increase their life expectancy, not to mention any potential psychological benefits, including pleasure.

Most decisions come with some goods and bads: there is not only the beauty of having trees on the street or having a better air quality, but these benefits come with an increased risk of being hit by a falling branch.

spiritsEUROPE strongly welcomes the report by the scientific committee, pointing out the need for a proper discourse and information from all stakeholders, including public institutions, such as the WHO, policy-makers, economic operators and citizens, when dealing with life-style decisions, such as the decision to drink, or not to drink. Moreover, this is not the sole question, it will be followed by many more, such as when, how and what type of alcoholic beverages one consumes. It is to be hoped that life-style risks and uncertainties can be properly discussed in future, despite strong ties to personal value judgments and experiences.

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