The Irish government won praise from the EU’s Health Commissioner over a new bill, which imposes a stricter framework on alcohol consumption in Ireland, including a minimum unit price, labelling and marketing restrictions.
Marcella Corcoran Kennedy, Ireland’s Health Minister, told EurActiv.com that the bill was a top priority for the government and that she had the support of Vytenis Andriukaitis, the EU’s Health Commissioner.
Spirit and beer makers, for their part, claim the measures will disrupt trade in the EU’s Single Market and that Andriukaitis’s views are not shared by the whole Commission.
Alcohol-related harm is a severe social problem for Dublin and a political headache for the government. Across Europe, harm related to excessive alcohol consumption accounts for over 7% of all illness and early deaths.
Ireland informed the European Commission about its Public Health Alcohol Bill in January 2016. The bill contains legislative provisions on minimum unit pricing, labelling, and stricter controls on marketing and advertising.
Dublin’s intention is to make it illegal to sell or advertise alcohol products below a minimum price.
The Irish government, aiming to change the country’s “damaging attitude to alcohol”, approved on Wednesday (9 December) plans for minimum prices for drinks in the hope of reducing one of Europe’s highest levels of alcohol consumption.
EU countries express concerns
Setting a minimum price is in principle prohibited under EU rules because it can restrict trade within the bloc’s internal market.
But member states have the right to deviate from the rules in cases where it is considered necessary to protect public health. When they do so, they must inform the Commission of their intention.
“In January, Ireland notified the Commission (and the member states) that we are introducing this legislation. The Commission then responded with comments, but, importantly, did not issue a ‘Detailed Opinion’,” the minister told EurActiv.
“A number of member states have responded with ‘Detailed Opinions’ setting out some concerns. We are now considering the issues raised and a response will be prepared for the Commission,” she added.
EurActiv has learned that Dublin has already received 10 detailed opinions, which were issued by Austria, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, France, Germany, Italy, Poland, Romania, Spain, and Portugal – all large exporters of beer or wine.
It also received three Comments by the Netherlands, Slovakia, and the UK, although after the deadline.
Scotland tried imposing a minimum price on alcohol but got overruled by the European Court of Justice, which deemed it illegal. Instead of a minimum price, the court advised Edinburgh to introduce a tax, which is less problematic under EU law.
Introducing minimum pricing unit (MUP) on alcohol in the EU will likely restrict the single market, the Court of Justice (ECJ) ruled just before the Christmas break.
Setting a minimum price
The Irish Minister emphasised that alcohol was no ordinary product. “Excessive consumption of alcohol in Ireland is associated with a wide range of adverse effects on personal health and on society,” she said.
The Minimum Unit Pricing element of the proposed law is one of the targeted measures, she explained.
“By designing it to prevent the sale of alcohol at very cheap prices, it is aimed at those who drink in a harmful and hazardous manner,” she said referring to the heaviest drinkers, and young people.
Kennedy also stressed that the law provided for health labelling of alcohol products, regulation of advertising and sponsorship, and separation of alcohol from other products in mixed trading outlets.
Asked whether the measures could be in breach of EU law, she replied: “I am confident that these measures are proportionate, having been calibrated to achieve the public health aims of the Bill. The Bill remains a priority for Government look forward to bringing the legislation to fruition.”
Commissioner supports the bill
Kennedy also highlighted the “strong support” from the EU’s Health Commissioner, Vytenis Andriukaitis.
Speaking at a conference in Brussels yesterday (27 September), Andriukaitis confirmed that the executive viewed the bill in a positive light, and stressed that Europe had a major problem with binge drinking and youth drinking.
“Alcohol is inflicting major damage on our youth and on society as a whole. The time has come to change this,” he said, adding that the EU cannot afford anymore all the damage that alcohol causes.
According to a recent report from ESPAD, alcohol use among adolescents in Europe remains high, but time trends since 1995 show some positive developments. ESPAD is the European school survey project on alcohol and other drugs.
“Lifetime use of alcohol decreased from 89% to 81% between 1995 and 2015 and last-30-day use from 56% to 47%, with a marked decrease seen in both patterns after a peak in 2003,” the report reads.
But for the Health Commissioner, this is not enough.
“Is it okay that half of our school children have already drunk alcohol by the time they are 13 years old? And that one in seven students aged 15 to 16 got drunk in the past 30 days?” the Commissioner asked.
Ireland has one of the lowest levels of underage drinking in Europe, he noted. But binge drinking is a great concern, with Ireland having one of the highest rates.
For Andriukaitis, EU member states – supported by the Commission – should push forward “real reforms” including taxation, pricing and restrictions on advertising and marketing on-line sales.
“The Irish Public Health Alcohol Bill is a good example of this approach with measures on advertising, labelling and minimum unit pricing,” the Commissioner said, adding that improvements in labelling can certainly help health awareness.
The alcohol industry not only opposes the Irish bill but also questions that the Commissioner’s support actually reflects the opinion of the EU executive as a whole.
Paul Skehan, Director General of SpiritsEurope, an association representing producers of spirit drinks, told EurActiv that the Irish move was against EU law.
“The Irish proposal to hide products from consumer sight, impose a minimum price decided by the health minister, impose warnings on bottles and ban advertising is for us disproportionate and contradictory to EU Law,” he noted.
“We are always interested to hear Commissioner Andriukaitis’s comments, but we always also pay great attention to what the Commission – as a whole – says,” Skehan said.
The Brewers of Europe held similar views.
“We shared with the European Commission our concerns regarding the proportionality and legality of a number of the measures in the Bill due to the barriers they put up that will hinder brewers from across the EU being able to enter and market their products on the Irish market,” said Jan de Grave, director of communications for the Brewers of Europe.
“I will be very interested to see how the Irish government plans to address not just our concerns but the opinions and comments submitted on the Irish proposals by no less than 14 other EU Member States and the European Commission itself,” he told EurActiv.
In Scotland, legislation was passed in May 2012 introducing a minimum retail selling price for all alcoholic beverages, based on strength and volume, the first of its kind in the European Union. A Minimum Unit Pricing (MUP) at 50 pence (€0.69) per unit was introduced.
The aim is to reduce harm to society and to individual health from excessive or abusive consumption of alcohol. According to the Scottish government, the impact of excessive consumption is estimated to cost £3.6 billion (€7.97bn) per year, equivalent to £900 (€1,242) for every adult in Scotland, who buy on average almost a fifth more alcohol than their English and Welsh counterparts.
Scotland's alcohol policy was challenged by the sprits and wine industry, which filed a court case against the minimum pricing policy. The Scottish high court turned it down, saying minimum pricing act was not outside the legislative competence of the Scottish Parliament.
Spirit and wine makers appealed that ruling before the European Court of Justice. In his opinion to the court, Advocate General Yves Bot said that a member state can impose a minimum price, but only if this system was superior to an alternative measure.
In other words, Scotland's plan to introduce a minimum price for alcohol risks breaching EU law because it restricts trade and distorts competition. Edinburgh might therefore have to explore other ways to protect public health such as increasing tax, the advocate general said.
A final ruling by the ECJ on the Scottish law is expected at the beginning of 2016.
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