MEPs divided over alcohol consumption in fight against cancer

The topic has also provoked reactions from the industry. [K.Decha/Shutterstock]

An EU report on beating cancer was adopted by a large majority of MEPs on Wednesday (16 February), after conservatives’ amendments loosened up zero-alcohol recommendations. EURACTIV France reports.

The report created by Parliament’s Special Committee on Beating Cancer’s (BECA) and led by Renew Europe MEP Véronique Trillet-Lenoir, consolidates proposals made by the Commission on 3 February 2021 as part of its EU Cancer Plan. The report also focuses on diet, endocrine disruptors, air pollution and tobacco.

In Europe, alcohol is responsible for 10% of cancers in men and 3% in women, the report found. The findings and recommendations support the Commission’s objectives to reduce alcohol consumption by 10% by 2025.

However, members of the conservative European Peoples’ Party (EPP) consider that only “abuse” of alcohol is a risk factor for cancer, not general consumption.

Consequently, they tabled amendments adopted Tuesday evening (15 February) to relax the report’s section dealing with preventing alcohol consumption. These amendments were signed by about one hundred MEPs, including from the socialist S&D, Renew Europe and the Identity and Democracy (ID) group.

“While excessive alcohol consumption is, of course, a health risk, appropriate and proportionate measures should be taken without stigmatising this important economic sector which is part of our way of life”, explained EPP MEP and vice-chair of the BECA committee, Nathalie Colin-Oesterlé. According to ID MEP Joëlle Mélin, life’s little pleasures” should not be “stigmatised”.

The topic has also provoked reactions from the industry. Ignacio Sánchez Recarte, secretary-general of the association representing the European wine companies known as CEEV, who opposes measures against alcoholic beverages, has welcomed the adoption of these amendments.

“The adopted text now makes a fundamental distinction between harmful and moderate consumption. It also recommends sharing information on moderate and responsible consumption with consumers instead of promoting the use of unjustified health warnings,” he wrote in a press release.

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No ‘zero risk’

According to Trillet-Lenoir, the recommendations, which warn of alcohol’s harmful effects, being seen as “coercive” measures is unfortunate.

“There is no such thing as zero risk when it comes to alcohol consumption. This is scientific information,” she said.

The recommendations made in the report are based on a World Health Organisation (WHO) study indicating that “there is no safe level of alcohol consumption when it comes to cancer prevention”.

“We can’t define a safe level, but we can recommend moderate consumption,” said Trillet-Lenoir. According to her, this is “policy without pragmatism” that distracts from the vital message.

The Green and the Left opposed the amendments. “Wine consumption is dangerous,” radical-left MEP Manon Aubry told EURACTIV France. “There is a very strong wine lobby in France,” she added.

Green MEP Tilly Metz is of the same view. She said that there is no “healthy consumption of alcohol, ” adding that it is necessary to “warn young people” about its dangers.

The S&D group, however, is not pointing the finger directly at alcohol, preferring to see the bigger picture.

“The science is based on facts, and the facts prove the direct link between cancer and the consumption of tobacco, alcohol and poor or low-quality food. Yet we regret that several members of the European Parliament have decided to ignore and blatantly disregard these facts,” Nicolás González Casares, spokesperson for the S&D group, wrote in an online press release.

“Private or corporate interests cannot take precedence over the health of our citizens. Never,” he also wrote.

Cancer could become the leading cause of death in Europe by 2035, but it could also be prevented in 40% of cases, the report also states.

The proposals are not binding but will be submitted to the European Commission, which will present a series of legislative measures on the topic by the end of 2022.

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[Edited by Alice Taylor]

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