By Sally Casswell and Arianne Zamora

The Philippines, as in many other countries where alcoholic beverages have been part of the culture for a long time, has been impacted by the advent of a global industry producing commercial alcohol products, and the aggressive marketing that is integral to the industry. Their marketing strategies, including the design of the alcohol products, target all sectors of the community, especially the heaviest drinkers and those segments largely made up of nondrinkers such as women and young people.

The more alcohol products are consumed, the more likely harm is experienced, either to the drinker’s health or the health and wellbeing of others around him or her. Ethanol is an addictive, carcinogenic drug and its contribution to the burden of disease and injury is significant.

In December 2023, the Western Pacific Regional (WPR) office of the World Health Organization (WHO) hosted an inter-country meeting in Manila, aiming to increase capacity across different government sectors and civil society to implement effective policy and reduce alcohol harm. The Philippines was represented by staff from government agencies (Health, Finance, Transport), a non-governmental organization, and the WHO country office, all of which have a role to play in the multi-sector development of effective alcohol policy.

The meeting included a presentation from the International Alcohol Control (IAC) study, a collaboration set up to assess the status of alcohol policies in low- and middle-income countries. Scores were available for the four countries attending the WPR meeting: Cambodia, Lao PDR, Vietnam, and the Philippines. Working with in-country collaborators, the IAC study collects data on the alcohol legislation in place and what is happening on the ground, the latter score reflecting the implementation or enforcement of policies. A perfect score on the IAC Alcohol Policy Index would be 25, but the four countries in the meeting averaged only 9.5. At 5.97, The Philippines scored lowest among the four countries.

Pulling down the Philippines’ score was its pricing policy. Despite the increase in alcohol taxes in recent years, alcohol excise tax remains a very small proportion of the retail price of the lowest priced products (which are most likely to be consumed by heavier drinkers). This has resulted in a “tax burden” of 25% in the Philippines, the lowest among the countries reviewed and the affordability of alcohol products was relatively high. Increasing the alcohol excise tax to reduce the affordability of alcohol products is the most cost-effective policy a country can put in place to reduce harm, a win-win given that government revenue also increases.

Another weak area was the Philippines’ reliance on sobriety checkpoints to enforce the drink driving law. All the other countries in the region had put in place random breath testing, which is a more effective measure for reducing rates of traffic crash injury. With random breath testing, drivers know they can be tested anytime and anywhere, making it a very effective deterrence tool. For example, it has been shown to “generate a huge effect” in Australian states, especially for reducing traffic fatalities among young people (Jiang et al., 2015).*

Another key cost-effective policy is restricting the marketing of alcohol products. While the Philippines reported some partial restrictions, the extent of alcohol marketing in many advertising modes, including digital media and sponsorship, resulted in another poor score. Partial bans are known to be ineffective and the implementation of a complete ban on alcohol marketing, while strenuously opposed by the producers and marketers of alcohol, is necessary to denormalize commercial alcohol products. Providing an environment free of the marketing of alcohol products also protects nondrinkers, including young people and those trying to escape from dependence.

Availability in the form of trading hours is the fourth policy dimension which is part of the IAC Policy Index score. The Philippines had the latest closing time (5 a.m.) for on premise outlets among the four countries but was similar to the other countries in terms of trading hours for sales of take-away alcohol products. Reducing trading hours is known to reduce alcohol harm, particularly violence.

Overall, the IAC Policy Index scores demonstrated that the Philippine government has the opportunity to take some important steps to reduce the experience of alcohol harm. Taking these steps will ensure an environment in which nondrinkers are protected from the ubiquitous persuasion to start drinking, and those who choose to drink can do so within a safer supply system than the one currently in place.

*Jiang, H., Livingston, M., & Manton, E. (2015). “The effects of random breath testing and lowering the minimum legal drinking age on traffic fatalities in Australian states,” Injury Prevention, 21(2), 77-83.

Sally Casswell is the director of the Social and Health Outcomes Research and Evaluation (SHORE), at the SHORE & Whariki Research Center in New Zealand. Arianne Zamora is a technical consultant of the World Health Organization Western Pacific and a Consultant at ICAP at Columbia University.