Lawmakers urge Commission to table new alcohol strategy


EU adults consume 12.5 litres of pure alcohol per year, according to the World Health Organisation. [Kaktuslampan/Flickr]

This article is part of our special report Alcohol in the EU’s policies.

SPECIAL REPORT / Members of the European Parliament, backed by health NGOs and the alcohol industry, are asking the European Commission to propose a new alcohol strategy, saying it should depart from the current one.

Some MEPs are losing their patience with the Commission, and want the EU executive to speed up the process of launching a new strategy.

On Tuesday (31 March), the European Parliament’s Committee on the Environment, Public Health and Food Safety (ENVI) overwhelmingly adopted a resolution which calls for the Commission to start working immediately on the Strategy.

The strategy should enter into force in 2016 and continue over an extended period of time, they said.

The EU’s latest strategy in reducing alcohol-related harm expired in 2013, after seven years in use.

While it did not impose specific legislation, the strategy provided guidance to member states in preventing harmful and hazardous drinking, by tackling areas such as drink driving, alcohol during pregnancy and underage drinking.

Three French MEPs – Angélique Delahaye, Françoise Grossetête and Michel Dantin from the European People’s Party (EPP) – praised the Parliament committee’s resolution, saying it underlines the responsibility of both consumers and producers in preserving public health, while respecting cultural traditions.

The resolution puts emphasis on prevention and education for young people, and gives member states the means to address alcohol harm as a public health problem, they said.

EURACTIV asked the Commission whether it plans to update the previous alcohol strategy, or present a completely new one at some point during its mandate. The EU’s executive replied that it was in the middle of a review process.

“As part of the process, we need to consider how alcohol-related harm can fit into a more holistic approach to support sustainable health systems and reduce the burden of chronic diseases,” the Commission told EURACTIV in an email.

Industry supports current strategy

The Brewers of Europe, an industry group representing the beer industry, referred to an independent evaluation of the previous strategy, published in late 2012, which showed the priorities were the right ones and remained valid.

“It is imperative that we continue to pursue the current EU strategy with a renewed vigour, taking on board the evaluation’s recommendations,” The Brewers said.

Paul Skehan, the Director-General of SpiritsEurope, the European body representing producers of spirits, stressed the importance of working in partnership with all stakeholders in order to reduce the harms caused by alcohol, such as binge drinking, underage drinking, drinking during pregnancy and drink-driving.

“Currently, the fight against alcohol harm is too fragmented, and lacking in coordination. The fight is also hindered by an increasingly polemic, polarised debate: simple one-size-fits-all solutions are touted as the only possible way to solve what is an exceptionally complex, varied set of challenges,” Skehan said.

“Collectively, we need more constructive discussion about the real problems, their causes and the remedies we might all apply towards reducing harm. Those remedies need to be based on sound science and robust evidence,” Skehan continued.

Minimum unit pricing

Another element which some legislators want included in the next Strategy is Minimum Unit Pricing (MUP).

While no member state currently has an MUP law, in 2012, the Scottish government decided to introduce one, and the UK government undertook to do the same.

The MUP in Scotland was set at 50p per unit, and the legislation supposed was to have been implemented in April 2013. However, it was delayed by a legal challenge by the Scottish Whisky Association (SWA), SpiritsEurope and wine producers (CEEV). The case has now been referred to the European Court of Justice (ECJ).

In an interview with EURACTIV in September, Glenis Willmott, a British MEP from the Socialists and Democrats (S&D), said the MUP could be a useful tool to be included in the new alcohol strategy.

“We have to look at it carefully. There is a whole range of problems. We have to make sure that the extra money doesn’t go to the supermarket, and just making profit. But it’s something worth looking at, and I think it’s something we should be discussing,” she said.

Meanwhile, the UK’s House of Lords’ EU Committee a few weeks ago published a report, saying that while MUP is controversial, it has been successful in bringing health benefits to the heaviest drinkers.

>> Read: Lords press Commission to act on alcohol

The Lords even called on the UK government to honour the commitment it gave in 2012 by following suit.

The court decision on whether or not setting up an MUP could be legal in the EU was previously announced to be in the spring of 2015.

But Mark Taylor, a spokesperson for the Scottish Government, told EURACTIV that his government is now expecting a decision later this year.

Commenting on the Parliament committee's resolution, Mariann Skar, Secretary-General of the European Alcohol Policy Alliance (Eurocare), said:

"All MEPs should now support this call for new action on alcohol, what should be considered as an investment in health to ensure a stable, robust long-term economic growth. Alcohol-related harm costs at least Europe 2-3% of GDP, mostly from lost productivity. Real costs to society are likely double that, as that figure does not include costs to anyone other than the drinker."

Launched in 2006, the EU’s Alcohol Strategy is designed to help national governments and other stakeholders coordinate their actions to reduce alcohol-related harm.

However, the strategy does not impose specific legislation on member states at this stage, relying instead on policy coordination and exchanges of best practices between countries.

To do this, the strategy introduced an alcohol and health forum, launched in 2007, where member organisations - public and private - are invited to debate, compare approaches and take action to tackle alcohol-related harm.

Harmful and hazardous alcohol consumption has a major impact on public health and also generates costs related to healthcare, health insurance, law enforcement and public order, and workplaces.

Harmful alcohol consumption also has a negative impact on labour and productivity, something the EU wants to address by promoting workplace-based initiatives.

Stakeholders such as business organisations and trade unions have a particular responsibility in this regard, the Commission believes.

>> Read our LinksDossier: Fighting alcohol harm: The EU's strategy under review

  • 2015: Minimum Unit Price on alcohol (MUP) could enter into force in Scotland.

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