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In our opinion: The U.K. takes the lead in efforts to address health risks of alcohol and pornography

The U.K.'s international leadership in health and wellness policies for its citizens has drawn attention to recent initiatives associated with alcohol consumption among both men and women, and pornography exposure to youths under 18 years old.
The U.K.'s international leadership in health and wellness policies for its citizens has drawn attention to recent initiatives associated with alcohol consumption among both men and women, and pornography exposure to youths under 18 years old.
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In a world where government involvement in personal choice is often considered suspect, the government in the United Kingdom has been surprisingly successful in garnering public support for causes and policies that involve changing citizens’ behavior in order to improve their health and well-being.

Which is why two recent initiatives involving alcohol and pornography have received the attention of policymakers all the way “across the pond” here in the United States.

The U.K. recently came out with new guidelines for alcohol consumption — the first changes in 20 years. First, they lowered the maximum recommended consumption level of alcohol for men by 30 percent. While industry opposition to the new guidelines has been critical, the government indicates that the evidence is quite compelling that the old guidelines were inappropriate. The current U.S. standard for men is much higher than the new U.K. standard. Interestingly, most countries that publish such standards tend to set alcohol consumption levels for men substantially higher than consumption levels for women. The new U.K. consumption standards are now the same for both genders.

Which raises the second alcohol guideline change. In a separate but related study done among women in the U.K. involving the “largest study in the world to look at this,” the data indicate that there is no safe level of alcohol consumption for women. While there is some evidence that modest consumption of alcohol has incremental benefits for some rare cancers, the facts show that any consumption of alcohol substantially increases a woman’s risk of a wide range of very common cancers. The conclusion is that there is no “safe” level of alcohol consumption for women.

The second recent U.K. initiative is to open a Public Consultation about proposed age restrictions for access to pornography. In explaining the rationale for intervention, the government states: “Evidence suggests that accessing porn is detrimental to children’s development and children are likely to be not sufficiently informed to make optimal consumption decisions.”

The initiative includes a study that draws from a broad base of research on the effects of exposure to pornography. The study cuts through much of the polarized rhetoric regarding pornography by acknowledging linkages between viewing certain types of pornography and the presence of detrimental attitudes and behaviors such as an increased objectification of women, or increased sexual aggression. The study also considers the effects of inadvertent versus intentional exposure to pornography. It acknowledges however that the data is inconclusive relative to causation.

While considering evidence across the spectrum of political and social research and commentary, the study finds that there is sufficient evidence that exposure is detrimental to the development of children that the government is proposing to impose “robust age verification controls for online pornographic content.” These controls would involve new regulations with stiff civil penalties for pornography content providers allowing underage (less than 18 years old) youths to view their online content. It would involve implementation of some of the most rigorous age verification policies and technologies on the Internet today. The government has published its proposed regulatory framework and is now soliciting industry, citizen, business and community input.

Often, the framing of public health issues in our country begins with bold assertions about individual rights — particularly the rights of adults. But that framing must be open to input from the data about harms. Deleterious health effects, particularly for the most vulnerable, need to be made known and mitigated. We commend the sober, data-driven initiatives underway in the U.K. to understand and address the very real health concerns created by both alcohol and pornography and commend them as exemplary approaches to our domestic policymaking.