Young people and binge drinking
There is an increasing trend of binge drinking among young people in many parts of the EU, but especially in Northern Europe and the United Kingdom.
This is exacerbated by the availability of alcoholic beverages to underage consumers. According to the European Commission, there is therefore a need to consider further actions to curb underage drinking and harmful drinking patterns among young people.
Young people are particularly at risk from the short-term effects of drunkenness, including accidents and violence. Alcohol-related deaths account for around 10% of all deaths among young women and 25% for men aged 15-29, according to the Commission's first progress report on the EU's alcohol strategy, published in September 2009.
The proportion of youth and young adults with harmful consumption patterns in the EU has increased in many member states over the last 10 years. This can contribute to long-term adverse health effects and increase the risk of social harm, the Commission says.
Young people are also often unfairly depicted as the perpetrators of alcohol problems rather than the victims. In the EU's first strategy report, alcohol is estimated to be a causal factor in 16% of cases of child abuse and neglect.
Avoiding harm to others: Pregnancy and road deaths
Drinkers risk not only their own health, but also the health of others, policymakers argue.
This can start even before birth as exposure to alcohol during pregnancy can impair brain development of the fetus, result in low birth weight and is also associated with intellectual deficits that become apparent later in childhood.
As high-risk consumption is increasing among young women and as alcohol consumption impacts the foetus, the EU wants to raise awareness on this issue.
But there are many other ways harm to other people’s health can be attributed to alcohol consumption.
In its 2012 alcohol report for the European Union, the World Health Organization analysed the number of deaths which can be attributed to harm caused to others by alcohol consumption. In 2004, the figure for men of all ages was 5,564 deaths; for women, 2,146 deaths.
Transport injuries are the first cause of harm caused to others, with violence being a distant second cause.
Southern Europe experiences the greatest proportion of alcohol-attributable harm to others. However, in central-eastern and eastern Europe, calculations indicate that there is a higher number of motor vehicle accidents where the drunk driver harms only him or herself.
About 25% of the accidents in the EU are linked to alcohol consumption, according to the WHO. At least 10,000 people are killed in alcohol-related road accidents every year, notes the Commission in its 2009 report.
Those aged 18-24 are particularly in danger of having an accident, according to the EU's 2006 strategy. Some 35% to 45% of fatalities of this age group are due to traffic accidents and traffic accidents are the most common cause of death for young people. For drink-driving accidents, two-thirds of the people involved were between 15-34 years, and 96% were male.
Industry self-regulation: The responsible marketing pact
Faced the threat of regulatory action by policymakers, leading producers from the beer, wine and spirits sectors reacted with a pledge to reduce the visibility of alcohol advertising and minimise their appeal to minors.
Europe’s eight largest alcohol manufacturers agreed to work with the World Federation of Advertisers (WFA), the European Commission and national associations to protect the young and vulnerable from targeted advertising.
The so-called Responsible Marketing Pact, launched in April 2012, will create common EU-wide guidelines designed to prevent minors from seeing alcohol ‘viral’ adverts on social media, and prohibit the creation of ads which seek to allure young people.
The signatories include AB InBev, Bacardi, Brown-Forman, Carlsberg, Diageo, Heineken, Pernod Ricard and SAB Miller, which together represent a majority of European alcohol advertising spending.
"The Responsible Marketing Pact breaks new ground because it is the first time major companies from the beer, wine and spirits sectors have come together to seek unified responsibility standards for all alcohol beverage marketing communications,” said Stephan Loerke, managing director at the World Federation of Advertising. The initiative, he added, marked a turning point in the industry's commitment to responsible marketing.
Under the pact, standards for age controls will be established along with a common standard that ads may only be placed in media where at least 70% of the audience is expected to be above the legal purchase age.
After agreeing on the standards, implementation and compliance will be monitored by the audit firm Accenture and national self-regulatory organisations. Sanctions for violations include public naming and shaming, and referral to national regulatory authorities in cases of repeat offences.
>> Read: Alcohol industry unites in advert abuse clampdown
Advertising and marketing – especially through social media – are areas the Commission is expected to consider explicitly in its strategy update.
Indeed, advertising standards in relation to alcohol vary considerably across the EU.
In France there is a blanket ban on alcohol advertising, with limited and strict exceptions. Manufacturers there are banned from associating themselves with sporting events such as the Olympic Games.
But the UK has taken a different view and allowed Heineken to be one of the principal sponsors of the London 2012 Olympics. Scandinavian countries also prohibit television and magazine advertising, whilst in other EU countries advertising remains possible though tightly controlled.
Meanwhile, the alcohol industry's marketing practices – including the sponsorship of major sporting or cultural events – continues to raise concerns for the Commission, which has threatened to legislate if the sector fails to self-regulate.
Health groups such as the European Centre for Monitoring Alcohol Marketing (EUCAM) have criticised the pact for hardly being new, similar voluntary rules have already been implemented in the beer sector for example. "Key points in this new marketing pact have already proven to be ineffective," EUCAM said.
Minimum pricing: A rising trend
But binge drinking among young people is probably the top concerns for policymakers, particularly in the UK, where Scotland was the first to introduce a minimum price on alcohol to discourage excessive drinking. England and Wales were due to follow soon, with proposals to introduce minimum pricing too. Similar proposals have also been tabled in France.
>> Read: Scotland first to introduce minimum price on alcohol and England, Wales target binge drinking with minimum pricing
On pricing, the regulatory landscape in Europe is currently mixed.
In the EU, member states must apply tax rated for different categories of alcoholic drinks. However, there is nothing in EU rules prohibiting countries from setting minimum prices for alcohol, as long as these prices are compatible with EU rules, such as no discrimination between imported goods and domestic goods, and no restriction on the free movement of goods.
Industry-backed advisors have warned that rising alcohol taxes and minimum pricing strategies will boost the amount of “unrecorded alcohol” consumed in Europe, increasing bootlegging and health risks.
In 2005, 22% of total adult consumption in Europe was unrecorded, according to the last global estimates of unrecorded alcohol produced by the WHO in 2005.
The Scottish experiment
Meanwhile, reactions to the Scottish minimum pricing law were heated.
The Scottish Parliament overwhelmingly passed a bill in May 2012 that introduced a 0.50£ (0.63€) minimum price for a unit of alcohol, the first legally-binding minimum price within the EU. This means that from April 2013, cut-price alcohol beverages will be outlawed in Scotland.
The bill is expected to improve the region’s health and crime levels by reducing binge drinking.
But the European Spirits Organisation (CEPS) and the Comité Européen des Entreprises Vins – representing Europe’s liqueur and wine producers respectively – attached themselves to an action in the Court of Session launched by the Scotch Whisky Association to challenge the Scottish government.
They argue that minimum pricing represents an illegal barrier to trade, will discriminate between companies in the market and fail to address harmful drinking.
The group added that a minimum price is illegal under EU and global competition laws and would also ruin the Scottish whisky industry's efforts to counter price controls and high tariffs in overseas markets.
>> Read: Whisky makers expected to challenge minimum pricing rules