Harm reduction needs to be reflected in the health policy


Brussels, February 17, 2021

Can we eliminate addictions? A drug-free or addiction-free society is an unrealistic utopia. Politics must steer away from the prohibition model and take into account that people will not abandon “unhealthy behaviour” (because they do not want to, they cannot, they don’t know how). But we have tools on how to moderate the negative impact of the addictions. Harm reduction in the health policy has become an increasingly hot topic, especially in the context of Europe’s Beating Cancer Plan debate. When is harm reduction appropriate and where are its limits?

The webinar „The Evidence on Harm Reduction and Addiction Policy” was organized by the Institute for Rational Drug Policies (IRAP), a Europe’s front-running NGO with an outstanding track record in the field of addictions; the webinar offered new views on harm reduction as a needed principle in health policy-making, a holistic and complex approach that is cost-effective, evidence-based and has a positive impact on the health of the individual and the community as a whole.

Europe’s Beating Cancer Plan as presented on February 3, 2021, is a missed opportunity to effectively help people addicted to smoking, alcohol, and other addictive substances, according to Jindřich Vobořil, head of IRAP and former Czech National Drug Coordinator. „In the context of the ongoing debate on Europe’s Beating Cancer Plan, it’s time that the European Commission begins to take the harm reduction seriously. We have evidence that what works is harm and risk minimization. This is the only realistic approach and financially manageable model,” says Mr Vobořil.

Alexis Goosdeel, director of the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA), has been a long time champion of the harm reduction approach. ”Harm reduction comes from Europe and has no limits for its use as a part of the policy on drugs or on other substances”, said Mr Goosdeel.

The goal of harm reduction approach is to keep people alive, help them to make positive changes in their lives and offer them alternatives that cause less harm. The scope of harm reduction is not only substance-related (illicit and licit drugs) but must also incorporate problem gambling, which often receives no attention. All addictive behaviour, however, has the same root and principles and should be treated in a complex manner. It is disappointing that the European Commission fails to address the positive potential of harm reduction in the protection of human health even though there is a clear public call for it.

Alcohol killed over 3 million people worldwide in 2016 and is responsible for every 20th death. One billion men and 250 million women smoke, tobacco is responsible for 90% of lung tumours, 6 million people die each year due to smoking. According to the WHO, smoking costs the world economics over 1 trillion dollars every year. Illicit drug use is responsible for over 750,000 deaths per year.

Who can change the situation? „We need to involve scientists and researchers; the policy-makers need to integrate modern scientific findings regarding addictions in their policy work. The mandate of the EMCDDA (European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addictions) must be strengthened,“ says Mr Vobořil. „Politicians also need to communicate with the non-governmental sector, as it provides prevention, treatment and fieldwork. Communication with the tobacco, alcohol and gambling industries has been very formal and crippled by caution; however, if the industry is given the task of harm reduction, it can deliver solutions. Addictions cannot be defeated only by bans and regulations,” he adds.

Important players include individual national states, as well as the structures of the EU itself, such as the European Commission. A large number of national states have already implemented an integrated policy (i.e. addiction is one problem). This should be reflected in the European Commission which is in dire need of re-structuralization. It’s about time that the European Commission begins to take the universal concept of harm reduction seriously.


Jindřich Vobořil

Phone: +420 725 805 865

Email: voboril@addiction-policy.eu

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