This article is part of our special report Reviewing Europe’s alcohol harm strategy.
The chief of strategy at the European Commission's health and consumer protection directorate (DG Sanco) tells EurActiv that the forthcoming overhaul of its alcohol strategy will probably not come before the end of the year, but it will be on the agenda of the Cypriot presidency.
Formerly a competition lawyer, Despina Spanou joined the European Commission in 2003 as an administrator at DG Competition. In 2004, she joined the cabinet of Health Commissioner Markos Kyprianou, becoming deputy head of cabinet in 2007, retaining the position when Androulla Vassiliou took over in 2008. Since 2010 she has been responsible for strategy and communication coordination for all DG Sanco policies.
Spanou spoke to EurActiv’s Jeremy Fleming in Brussels.
An external report will be submitted to DG Sanco at the end of the summer taking stock of how the current alcohol strategy has been working. Do you envisage that there will be a drive to get a new or updated strategy out before the end of the Cypriot presidency, is this something the Cypriot presidency wants to focus on?
In some ways the timing of the Cypriot presidency is not helpful because the evaluation report on the strategy will appear roughly half way through the presidency period, which means that it is unlikely – with the general Commission timings and procedures – that a new or updated strategy would be finalized by the end of the year.
However we do know that the Cypriot presidency is intending to focus on the issue of chronic diseases and the health determinants – such as alcohol abuse – which contribute to these. There will be a high level conference on that issue in September and [Health] Commissioner [John] Dalli will attend it, and we hope that this will enable the Cypriot presidency to focus on the issue and it means that there will at least be some conclusions arising from the Cypriot presidency on the issue.
How has the relationship between the EU alcohol strategy and the member states own strategies been working?
When we answered the very strong call for a strategy in 2006 there was very little happening at national level. Scandinavian countries tended to be the exception, but now there is a great movement – we would like to think that this is in part to do with our strategy initiative – to create more active mechanisms within national strategies.
There is a committee of experts from the member states which meets several times a year, and we want to take this up to a higher political level. Now that we see there is national-level action we are hoping that we will identify ways of helping member states to do more and increase the number of member states taking actions. We have included all the member states in the process of the evaluation, in addition to the Commission’s stakeholder forum on alcohol and other interested parties such as scientists.
Under the current strategy there is a focus on stakeholder participation through the stakeholder forum, is this an approach that will continue?
Overall there is consensus that this system has created results. People may disagree, for example civil society groups want to see stronger regulation rather than self regulation in some areas. However there are some areas where self regulation undoubtedly works, for example, in encouraging industry to engage in advocacy relating to harmful drinking. This has produced results, so overall my experience is that the 200 commitments that have been made by the stakeholders in the forum since in 2007 are very positive, and we have a high percentage of stakeholders who acknowledge that the forum has created the impetus and two-way dialogue to make these possible.
There may be specific topics where self regulation is more controversial. On marketing and advertising issues, for example, civil society has been calling for regulation. We have been pushing industry to come forward with its own proposals and there is evidence this week that this is happening with the new Responsibility Pact on advertising announced by industry. We have a presentation on this pact at next week’s meeting of the stakeholder forum and we will be able to see more clearly how it will work.
We have already seen on the food labelling issue, that regulation takes longer to introduce than self regulation. On labelling for unhealthy food for children – which industry came to a self regulatory pact on – this was a good example and we are trying to create the same commitments and action in the alcohol industry. We want it to show that self regulation can deliver results, but they need to demonstrate that it can work.
Labelling and warnings on bottles are one area that there are expectations that the Commission will want to progress, is that a fair comment? Are you moving inexorably towards a situation where bottles will contain a warning, like cigarette packets, saying ‘Alcohol kills’?
This is not the direction that we have taken and we distinguish clearly between alcohol and cigarettes. One cigarette is harmful, but alcohol is a cultural part of European life and there have been studies that say it can bring health benefits. It is the harm that is the problem, not the alcohol, whereas tobacco is a risk factor. We have never wanted ‘Drinking kills’ labels, but we have encouraged more health warnings. These can have an immediate impact on the choices that vulnerable groups (such as pregnant women and young people) make, so this is the direction we have asked the industry to go. As well as offering links to messages which are on web sites, we want to see the messages on bottles as well, they should present on their bottles. This is something that the Commissioner and even President Barroso have emphasised.
There has been a lot of recent news on pricing, with first Scotland, then the UK backing minimum pricing campaigns. There is talk of a legal challenge by the spirits industry. Can and might the strategy attempt any discussion of pricing, whether through tax or other means?
These are very interesting developments. It is a huge evolution from 2006 with governments taking action on alcohol. It's true that we see an increase in action on minimum pricing and tax and we support these broadly. However these are matters for the member states themselves, our only concern is that these measures alone do not tackle the underlying problems of harm caused by alcohol, and they require holistic action as well.
In the committee of member states representatives we try to get the member states to explain to us why they want to take their measures and what impact they believe they will have, and this can help promote these kinds of measures. We do not specify a preference for any particular type of taxation, merely help in sharing information. We have asked the Scots, for example, to explain their minimum pricing proposals to us at the next meeting. We have not yet heard of any possible fragmentation in the internal market that might result. But if it came to that, then we are sure that stakeholders would draw it to our attention.
Advertising is an issue which is dealt with at local levels, but internet advertising is difficult to monitor and regulate, is this an area that the strategy will consider?
It is an area of great concern and we have in fact been asking the industry and stakeholders to exercise their voluntary commitments in this direction. We have seen industry introduce their codes in the forum, and we need to see how these will be implemented. We are waiting for some results and we need to see if self regulation will be sufficient. We want to see protection of minors but we could use the Audiovisual Services Directive to help regulate this. A report is out later this year on that directive and we are looking forward to seeing if more needs to be done to update that directive from the point of view of online alcohol advertising.