The European Commission is exploring ways to bring back health organisations to its alcohol policy forum, in light of recent reports suggesting a decrease in underage drinking across Europe.
According to a World Health Organisation report published on 15 March, the percentage of 11, 13 and 15-year-old children who consume alcohol at least once a week halved between 2002-2014.
This means “that more than 85% of underage European 15-year-olds do not drink at all”, according to the WHO.
The report also noted that the highest decline was marked in Sweden, the UK, the Netherlands, Ireland, and Spain.
The European spirits industry welcomed the results of the survey, but admitted there was still work to do.
“The 2014 results are very encouraging,” said Paul Skehan, Director General of spiritsEurope, adding that the percentage of 15 year-olds reporting first consumption at the age of 13 or earlier declined by 32% between 2006 and 2014.
“Fighting underage drinking across Europe requires joint work among those who influence and shape minors’ attitudes, such as peers, parents and educators,” Skehan said.
Commission in dialogue with NGOs
In June 2015, twenty public health NGOs pulled out of the European Alcohol and Health Forum (EAHF), a stakeholder platform aiming to develop strategies to fight alcohol abuse.
The NGOs, most of which receive EU funding, decided to abstain from the platform in protest against the European Commission’s refusal to submit a new alcohol strategy, which formally expired in 2012.
But the executive now hopes to bring NGOs back to the table.
A Commission spokesperson told EURACTIV that the areas of work and the objectives identified in the EU alcohol strategy to support member states in fighting alcohol harm remained valid.
“The Commission continues supporting the prevention of alcohol abuse and addressing the harm it causes through a joint action and various projects under the Health Programme,” the EU official said, adding that the executive is considering how best to rekindle EU activities related to reducing alcohol-related harm.
“Since the NGOs chose to leave the Alcohol and Health Forum, reflection is also underway on how to best include stakeholders in such work,” the spokesperson said.
“We are in dialogue with the NGOs to examine how to continue cooperation and whether this can be done in a structured way,” the official continued, emphasising that the Commission had an “open door policy” with all stakeholders engaged in action to reduce alcohol-related harm.
The EU official welcomed the general trend towards a decrease in adolescent alcohol use but underlined that the figures nevertheless deserved thorough analysis. Trends diverge in several member states and too many teenagers still abuse alcohol while consumption tends to increase substantially with age, the official remarked.
The UK case
Meanwhile, a survey conducted by the Health and Social Care Information Center in the UK found a remarkable decrease in alcohol use among young people in Britain.
According to the survey, the proportion of young teenagers who have ever had an alcoholic drink has been in steady decline since 2003.
The survey found that 38% of 11-15-year-olds in England consumed alcohol in 2014, down from 61% in 2003. The drop in Scotland was similar.
The decline could be attributed to several reasons, ranging from better legal enforcement of minimum purchase ages via ID schemes to lower affordability due to tax hikes, according to the UK-based Institute of Alcohol Studies (IAS), which claims to be one of the few organisations that does not depend on funding from the government or the alcohol industry.
The IAS also said that demographic shifts played a significant role, meaning that there are more ethnic minorities, which are less likely to drink, and affect their peers.
“There is some evidence that minority students can influence their peers: non-Muslim children in schools with a high Muslim population are less likely to drink,” the survey reported.
Social media and drinking
The IAS also highlighted internet access and social media as a contributing factor.
Social media offer a new set of activities that are “more entertaining and enjoyable than drinking” and were perceived as different modes of socialising, the report said.
However, greater internet usage may also lead to higher levels of consumption. According to the IAS, “Online, young people may be exposed to pro-drinking messages and pressure.”
Internet consumption of 12-13-year-olds increased by 24% to 17 hours a week between 2007 and 2013, according to Ofcom, the communications regulator in the UK.
The European Commission recently proposed a reform of advertising rules on television and online, opening a new battlefield for health NGOs, advertisers and the alcohol industry.