It takes willingness from all sides in order to make the EU’s Alcohol and Health Forum (EAHF) effective, a European Commission official has said, urging businesses and health NGOs to return to the discussion table.
“It takes two to tango, so it really needs all the parties for the Forum to work and I think it is beneficial for everybody that it works,” said Arunas Vinciunas, the chief of staff of EU Health Commissioner Vytenis Andriukaitis.
“We are trying to mediate and negotiate for two sides but it needs willingness from all to come to the table and start talking,” Vinciunas told participants at a EURACTIV event held last week (24 January).
Vinciunas was speaking at an event on ‘Responsible Party’, an awareness-raising campaign against the excessive use of alcohol. The scheme is the first EU-wide alcohol prevention programme implemented by volunteers from the Erasmus Student Network (ESN), with the support of French spirit maker Pernod Ricard.
In June 2015, twenty public health NGOs pulled out from the EU’s Alcohol and Health Forum (EAHF), a stakeholder platform led by the European Commission, which aims to develop strategies to fight alcohol abuse.
The NGOs, most of which receive EU funding, walked away from the platform in protest against the Commission’s refusal to submit a new alcohol strategy, which formally expired in 2012.
Health campaigners also have reservations about the industry’s participation to the Forum.
Against such a loaded background, participants at the EURACTIV event stood their ground but showed a spirit of dialogue.
According to a survey, Erasmus students tend to drink more than local ones but the Responsible Party project has helped students consume less alcohol and change their drinking habits, for instance, by encouraging them to drink water as well.
Although the reduction of alcohol consumption among students was not massive, all recognise the initiative as a positive step.
Asked whether such a project could convince NGOs to “return” to the Forum, an activist from the European Alcohol Policy Alliance said contacts with the Commission have already been held in that direction.
Replying to the Commission’s calls for all stakeholders to return to the discussion table, the activist said: “It depends on the stakeholders’ motives and how they have proven in the past if they follow their motives or not.”
Commenting on the project, ESN President João Pinto said the primary objective of the ‘Responsible Party’ campaign was to enhance health literacy and make sure students understand the risks of alcohol consumption.
“We must provide students with the appropriate tools on how to have a moderate alcohol consumption,” he said.
Turning to the future, Pinto said ESN would push for an EU youth strategy that takes into account the health and prevention sector. He also underscored that there would be more focus on eastern European countries, where the program has so for been less successful.
The youth representative also highlighted the importance of involving other local students and high-schools in order for young people to be informed early about the harmful effects of alcohol.
Portuguese Minister of Education Tiago Brandão Rodrigues stressed that the program delivered a strong message on prevention and moderation, which can be delivered through a bottom-up approach, with decision-makers “giving space” to young people to take the initiative.
The Portuguese politician also noted that the freedom to decide “what is cool and what is healthy” was a cornerstone of prevention policies. “We all know that prohibition is sometimes the way to go against prohibition,” he said.
“Life can be cool, the Erasmus experience can be cool without addiction to alcohol” Rodrigues said, adding alcohol can “excite our life but also destroy it.”
Together, not separately
Referring to the study, Social-Democrat MEP Momchil Nekov, who is a member of the European Parliament Committee on Culture and Education, said it could be “useful” for the future EU youth strategy, which is currently under negotiation.
“One of the main criticisms is that youth policies are often confused with youth employment initiatives. This is a mistake, because we don’t take into account the other aspects that form a youth policy such as health and well-being.”
He noted it would be essential to adopt a cross-sectoral approach when it comes to youth policies with all relevant actors involved.
“Otherwise we won’t be able to see the whole picture,” he said, adding that education should be prioritised with the inclusion of tailor-made programmes in school curricula from an early age.
Labelling: The ‘hot potato’
Another issue raised during the debate was alcohol labelling.
On 13 March 2017, the European Commission adopted a report on the mandatory labelling of ingredients and nutrition declaration for alcoholic beverages.
It offered an additional year for the alcohol industry to develop its own voluntary initiatives and provide a list of ingredients and nutrition declaration. The industry’s proposal is due next March.
Alexandre Ricard, Chairman and CEO of Pernod Ricard, said that today one already has access to all energy information for any of the company’s brands on the websites.
“We are a consumer-centered company and consumers want to know. What is in the drink they are having and what energy content is has. It addresses a consumer fully legitimate desire. So, we will be including all this information on the brand websites,” Pernod Ricard boss said.
Ricard defended online labelling, claiming that labels become unreadable if there is too much information put on it. “But online, one can have an easy access to a lot of information on a readable format,” he said.
On the other hand, the European Alcohol Policy Alliance argues that the majority of consumers “never or rarely” use off-label information sources to access information on nutrition values and ingredients of alcoholic beverages. Instead, it claims that best way to keep consumers well informed is the “on-label” information.