The new strategy should include plans for labelling the calorie content of alcoholic beverages, the European Parliament said in a resolution adopted on Wednesday (29 April).
The European Commission should “immediately begin work” on the EU’s next alcohol strategy for 2016-2022, the Parliament said in the resolution.
The EU’s latest strategy to tackle alcohol-related abuse expired in 2013, after seven years in use, and was not replaced by a new one.
While it did not impose specific legislation, the strategy provided guidance to EU member states in preventing harmful and hazardous drinking, by tackling areas such as drunk driving, alcohol consumption during pregnancy, and underage drinking.
Now, MEPs are losing their patience with the Commission, saying the new strategy should include plans for labelling the calorie content of alcoholic beverages. The executive should submit a legislative proposal to this end in 2016 at the latest, they add.
Alcohol was left out of new EU rules on food and drinks labelling – the Food Information to Consumers Regulation – which entered into force on 13 December, 2014.
A report on how to include alcoholic beverages in the regulation was supposed to have been published by the Commission last December, but the EU executive now expects it to be published by the end of this year.
This has frustrated the European beer sector, which wants the nutrition labelling rules applied across the board, and announced an industry-wide commitment to progressively provide ingredients and nutrition information on their products.
Alcohol poses a major risk to public health, MEPs said in the resolution, noting that the direct and indirect social cost of alcohol abuse in Europe in 2010 alone is estimated at €155.8 billion. They called on the new strategy to include the collection of “reliable scientific data” to improve the prevention and treatment of alcohol-related harm.
Member states should also consider measures against the sale of very cheap alcohol, they added, including cross-border sales of alcohol via the internet.
British MEP Glenis Willmott, a British MEP from the Socialists and Democrats (S&D) group, is the author of the resolution.
“The evidence is clear that drinking during pregnancy harms the unborn child and the Commission needs to do more to ensure people are aware of this by introducing warning labels on all alcoholic drinks,” Willmott wrote in a blog post, recalling that alcohol is linked to over 60 chronic illnesses including cancer, liver disease and heart disease.
“The European Parliament has made it clear that we want the Commission to make tackling alcohol-related abuse a priority. We’ve sent a strong message to the Commission today, and I hope they’ll listen and finally come forward with a new Strategy to set out how this will be done,” the MEP continued.
The beer industry has likewise called for the EU to put the alcohol strategy on the agenda, drawing praise from both the executive, and consumer organisations, for its self-regulation move on labelling.
The first EU alcohol strategy was launched in 2006 and expired in 2013. Earlier this month, a spokesperson from the Commission told EURACTIV that “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 Brewers of Europe said in a statement:
"The ongoing EU Strategy differentiates amongst different drinking cultures and behaviours and rightly focuses on alcohol misuse, supporting member states to address the problems caused by harmful drinking via targeted, locally relevant activities. As such, The Brewers of Europe supports the effective strengthening of the strategy’s existing mechanisms and the strict enforcement of national legislation, rather than introducing a new top-down approach."
Monique Goyens, Director General of The European Consumer Organisation (BEUC), commented:
“The European Parliament have shown they are listening to consumers. If we are to truly tackle Europe’s rising obesity epidemic, calorie content labelling on alcoholic drinks is a sheer must. When people think of calorific drinks, softs drinks spring to mind. But a single large glass of wine contains as many calories as a chocolate bar. So providing alcohol information will inevitably enhance consumers’ knowledge of what’s in their glass. The Commission should now heed the Parliament’s call and swiftly present its long awaited report. The paradox of alcohol being exempted from calorie and ingredient labelling that is mandatory for soft drinks, is unjustifiable. MEPs should be applauded for urging the Commission to rise to the task.”
Spirits Europe, which represents the spiritis industry at EU level, noted the Parliament's adoption, in particular, the focus on tackling alcohol harm rather than on alcohol consumption per se is correct, and MEPs’ emphasis on the contexts and patterns of alcohol consumption are also very welcome.
“We welcome the Parliament’s interest and we welcome the majority of the proposals they make,” said Paul Skehan, Director General of Spirits Europe. “We support the MEPs’ calls for better research, for better collection of data and for sharing evidence. In particular, the spirits sector applauds the Parliamentarians’ call for appropriate strategies to tackle the problem of alcohol counterfeiting as well as illegal and black market sales of alcohol.”
Angelique Delahaye, an MEP from the coservative European People's Party (EPP), also welcomed the adoption of the alcohol strategy.
"This text addresses important issues and I welcome that. Indeed, it is crucial to fight against excessive consumption responsible for many deaths, either directly (diseases) or indirectly (accidents). In this respect, the focus on prevention and education, especially among young people, is a very good thing and I hope this message will be heard," she said.
The European Federation of National Organisations working with the Homeless, FEANTSA, commented that there is a clear link between harmful alcohol consumption and homelessness:
"While a person may become homeless for various reasons, research shows that two-thirds of homeless people cite alcohol as a major reason for becoming homeless. There is also clear evidence that alcohol use increases as a consequence of homelessness, often used as a means of coping with the stress of homelessness. Mortality in homeless people (people who live on the street die 20 years before the general population) is an example of severe health inequalities and problematic alcohol use is a significant contributing factor to this. Problematic alcohol use accounts for over a third of all deaths among homeless people."
“Prevention of alcohol related harm is a smart investment for the economy, it cuts long-term healthcare expenditures and at the same time raises workforce productivity,” said Mariann Skar, Secretary General of Eurocare. “The Commission needs to respond to ministers and the Parliament with a decisive new alcohol strategy. The lack of a strategy is currently undermining Europe’s efforts for jobs and growth.“
Nina Renshaw, the European Public Health Alliance (EPHA) Secretary General said in a statement:
"The Parliament vote, coupled with the call from EU Health Ministers should shame the Commission into action on alcohol. Years of EU inaction have allowed the alcohol industry to hide the harm – and even the calories – in their drinks. The Commission is currently fixated on “Better Regulation”, but what’s “Better” about the Commission failing in its duty to protect public health?"
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
- End 2015: Commission to publish report on alcohol labelling.
- 2015: Minimum Unit Price on alcohol (MUP) could enter into force in Scotland.
- December 2016: Food producers' obligation to provide nutrition information enters into force.