Global strategy taking shape against alcoholism

An action plan to confront alcoholism in business and industry is rapidly taking shape here in consultations involving the United Nations' International Labor Office (ILO), the World Health Organization (WHO), and several key nongovernmental agencies.

A third of all industrial accidents worldwide is blamed by ILO on alcohol abuse. A dramatic recent increase of up to 500 percent in the annual per capita consumption of alcohol in some countries has led to what WHO describes as "one of the world's major public health concerns threatening to slow down economic development and to overburden the health services."

The talks leading toward a global strategy are conducted here after a call made last year by Joe Morris, former president of the Canadian Labor Congress, as chairman of the workers' group in the ILO governing body. He urged management and labor to come together and face their joint responsibility for combating alcoholism at the workplace.

ILO is seeking international acceptance for a scheme, variations of which have been tried already with much success in North America and Northern Europe, for the identification and rehabilitation of problem drinkers among the labor force.

One organization based in New York and comprising an alliance of business and trade union officials reports an up to 70 percent success rate in saving the jobs of drink-troubled employees. There are well over 4,000 employee assistance programs run by enlightened companies across North America, some of which claim an 80 percent success rate.

By comparison, about 95 percent of employees who are identified by their work supervisors as heavy drinkers and are not supported by such aid schemes tend to lose their livelihoods.

A broader approach is taken in Northern Europe where unions and management are joined by government representatives in a combined effort to solve a wide range of problems in employment, including alcoholism, drug addiction, and other disabilities. Many ILO policymakers favor this approach because they believe that it tends to do away with the social label "alcoholic" on problem drinkers seeking help.

WHO wants to persuade governments everywhere to undertake vigorous educational, financial, and legislative measures -- including the prescription of compulsory attendance by heavy drinkers at rehabilitation centers as a condition of their continued employment.

Alcoholism is a special health risk in areas of rapid industrialization. WHO says that drinking may well increase the family breakdowns caused by the widespread migration of destitute, landless peasants drawn from the depressed countryside of many poor countries to the industrial magnets of the big cities.

The architects of the global program consider that the moment is ripe for coordinated action. Britain is about to introduce a variety of measures to reduce its alarming incidence of alcoholism; and related measures are being planned elsewhere.

Patrick Jenkin, Britain's top health official, probably expressed the view of many governments when he recently told a specialist conference that "we are facing a major and increasing epidemic" and called on employe rs and trade unionists to join forces in order to combat it.

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