Off-label proposals for alcohol labelling are not enough

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Consumers in Europe have a right to know what is in the alcohol that they drink, and they shouldn’t need to go online to get that information. [Shutterstock]

Nutritional information should be clearly marked on the labels of alcohol products, and the off-label proposals being put forward by industry are not sufficient, writes professor Markus Peck-Radosavljevic.

Professor Markus Peck-Radosavljevic is the chairman of the United European Gastroenterology (UEG) Public Affairs Committee.

In March 2017, the Commission published a report on alcoholic labelling, which found that there was no justification for the absence of nutritional information from alcoholic beverages. All other food products must clearly state this information on their packaging. Why should alcohol be any different?

The European Commission granted alcohol producers a year to deliver a self-regulatory proposal. The alcohol industry has been arguing for off-label approaches, such as placing QR codes on labels or referring customers to a website. These measures are not enough.

Consumers in Europe have a right to know what is in the alcohol that they drink, and they shouldn’t need to go online to get that information. What separates alcohol from any other food product on the market – why treat it any differently?

Europe is facing a rising health crisis – almost one in six Europeans is obese, and alcohol-related digestive cancer rates are increasing. Eight out of every ten people do not know that a glass of wine contains roughly the same number of calories as a bar of chocolate, and studies show that nine in ten people are unaware that alcohol increases the risk of cancer.

More alcohol is consumed in Europe than on any other continent in the rest of the world, and the EU needs to take steps to ensure that people are aware of the health risks that are associated with drinking.

UEG has found that alcohol is a key risk factor for several digestive cancers, including oesophageal, liver, pancreatic, colorectal and gastric cancer. These five cancers alone contribute to a third of all cancer deaths worldwide – almost three million deaths per year.

A report entitled ‘Alcohol and Digestive Cancers: Time for Change’, released by UEG in 2017, stated that light drinkers have an increased risk of oesophageal cancer, moderate drinkers have an increased risk of colorectal cancer and heavy drinkers are at an increased risk of pancreatic, gastric and liver cancer.

Considering that drinking alcohol poses such threats to public health, the EU has a duty to take action and ensure that alcohol labels contain all the necessary nutritional information.

I completely agree with my colleague Professor Stephan Haas of the Karolinska University Hospital in Sweden, who said: “Many beverages contain harmful ingredients as well as pure ethanol and the industry should detail all the ingredients, amount of alcohol and calories on every bottle or can, to ensure the public is fully informed about what they are drinking.”

Amongst the information that needs to be presented on alcohol labels are energy, fat content, saturated fatty acids, carbohydrates, sugar, protein, salt and a list of ingredients. Although some alcoholic drinks do not contain any fat or salt, this information still needs to be clearly mentioned on the label. Simply stating the calorie content is not enough.

Printing nutritional information on the labels allows consumers to better monitor their diets, and make healthier choices. The EU has a responsibility to ensure that consumers are well-informed about what they put into their bodies, and effective labelling measures can ensure that. The EU cannot afford to ignore this growing problem and the Commission should prioritise a consumer’s right to know by means of mandatory alcohol labelling.

Consumers need to be able to make informed choices as a first step towards tackling Europe’s growing obesity epidemic and rising digestive health problems.

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