Europeans diverge over alcohol taste, tax and marketing

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This article is part of our special report Reviewing Europe’s alcohol harm strategy.

Public awareness of the health impacts of alcohol vary widely across Europe according to a new survey, adding to existing divisions between member states on tax, taste and marketing as policymakers seek to revitalise Europe's common alcohol strategy.

Major brewer SAB Miller yesterday (18 April) released a report examining the impact of "responsible drinking messages" it has put on bottles across Europe, including results of a survey of 4,000 drinkers across eight EU member states.

The results showed widely divergent recognition of health messages about alcohol, with more than two-thirds of Slovakians recalling messages unprompted, set against only 18% Dutch.

Major brewer SAB Miller yesterday (18 April) released a report examining the impact of "responsible drinking messages" it has put on bottles across Europe, including results of a survey of 4,000 drinkers across eight EU member states.

The results showed widely divergent recognition of health messages about alcohol, with more than two-thirds of Slovakians recalling messages unprompted, set against only 18% Dutch.

Amongst canvassed drinkers, Romanians and Hungarians were half as likely (48%) to recognise health messages about alcohol as British, Dutch and Slovakians (more than 90% in each case).

Beer in the north, wine in the south

SAB Miller’s bottle messages are part of formal commitments given by industry in the context of the European Union’s  alcohol strategy.

Currently under review, a revamped strategy will try to tie together issues surrounding marketing, pricing and advocacy on harmful drinking across member states with strongly diverging views and traditions.

Cultural mores reflect a broader beer-drinking tradition in the northern countries, with significant economic viticulture in the south along the Mediterranean.

These cultural habits feed into arguments about taxation. Wine is traditionally spared more than a token excise duty in major producing countries, but with higher taxes slapped on in the beer-producing states. Meanwhile beer-producers are more frequently hit – and at higher levels – by excise duties charged on the size of brewing production premises.

Spirits manufacturers, paying excise at the highest levels, demand a "level playing field".

The impending arrival of minimum pricing strategies in Scotland and potentially the rest of the UK will add a new dimension to cross-border sales as supermarkets and suppliers decide how to divide the additional payments between themselves.

Differences on tax, price, culture and marketing

Minimum pricing will not directly affect costlier spirits, but European manufacturers, which dominate the international spirits market, are rattled that their efforts to export will meet with tit-for-tat tariffs overseas.

The European Commission will avoid any direct discussion over tax or pricing in its strategy update but will come under pressure to give clear guidance on how member states can impose pricing measures, especially since they are likely to be challenged under EU competition law.

Meanwhile, the alcohol industry's marketing practices – including the sponsorship of major sporting or cultural events – continues to raise concerns at the European the Commission, which is threatening to legislate if the sector fails to self-regulate.

In France, a blanket ban on advertising prevents alcohol manufacturers from associating themselves with sporting events such as the Olympic games. But the UK has taken a different view and has allowed Heineken to be one of the principal sponsors of the London 2012 Olympics.

Brewers of Europe secretary-general Pierre Olivier Bergeron pointed to a study commissioned in 2009 as evidence of the limitations of increasing excise duties. 

"Added to an advertising ban there, this leads to a situation where 30% of the beer is purchased through unregistered channels, which makes it impossible to check on the age of the drinkers, he said, adding: "Our findings showed that it was smuggled by extremely well organised networks that manage to reach out to under-aged drinkers."

Europeans have the highest per-capita consumption of alcohol and drinking causes nearly one in 10 cases of ill health and premature death.

The European Commission's informal alcohol strategy will be evaluated later this year. The policy objective of the strategy is to reduce the health and social harm due to alcohol consumption.

  • This weekIndependent evaluator on alcohol strategy consults with stakeholders with draft report.

  • Sept. 2012: Final evaluation report on alcohol strategy sent to the Commission.

  • Sept. 2012: Alcohol strategy discussed at Cypriot presidency event on chronic diseases.

  • Oct. 2012: Commission publishes evaluation report with preliminary remarks.

  • Q1 2013: Commission to decide whether to update existing strategy, or introduce more comprehensive alcohol regulation instruments.

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