Alcohol consumption among young people increases as a result of advertising campaigns and the EU should promote more responsible marketing, stakeholders agreed this week. But responsibility for dealing with the issue lies with member states and the European Commission has no intention of harmonising legislation in this regard.
"Marketing has a very powerful effect on young peoples' behaviour. It encourages young people to start drinking, and if they already do so, then to drink more," Swedish Socialist MEP Anna Hedh warned a European Parliament hearing on protecting teenagers from the impact of alcohol marketing.
Each year, 320,000 European young people between the ages of 15 and 29 die from alcohol-related causes, according to 2011 figures from the World Health Organisation: representing 9% of all deaths in that age group.
"Children and young people are constantly exposed to positive and risk-free images of alcohol," said Cliona Murphy of Alcohol Action Ireland, warning that "marketing can create youth culture by making alcohol synonymous with how to socialise, relax and achieve sexual success".
"Alcohol has been normalised as an integral part of life. This matters because it affects health and personal development, and young people are more at risk than adults," said Murphy.
She wants EU policymakers to legislate to protect teenagers from the impact of alcohol advertising. "What matters is whether there's enough political will to act," Murphy said.
She was echoed by compatriot Marian Harkin MEP, from the liberal ALDE group in the European Parliament, who believes that legislating to protect youngsters from alcohol marketing is justified on both public health and economic grounds, especially "given alcohol's effects on lost productivity".
"It depends on politics. Big business and the lobbyists working for it influence politicians, but so do citizens," Harkin insisted, sounding an optimistic note that action was possible.
But responsibility for regulating alcohol advertising lies in the hands of EU countries and action taken in Brussels is designed to complement rather than harmonise national rules in the field.
No harmonisation of laws, says Commission
"We have no intention of proposing harmonised legislation," said Pieter de Coninck, an official in the European Commission's health and consumer policy department (DG SANCO), adding that "all member states have a mixture of statutory and voluntary regulations".
Current EU regulations do not ban alcohol advertising unless it is explicitly targeted at minors.
"EU action is designed to complement action taken at national level and its aim is to support member-state actions to prevent irresponsible marketing," De Coninck explained, adding that "the Commission's services will work with stakeholders to encourage cooperation on responsible marketing".
In the past, the Commission has published reports on self-regulation of alcohol advertising, and the issue will next be reviewed when the EU executive publishes a progress report on the EU Health Strategy in 2012.
A survey of 1,000 people aged 14-29 across 41 European countries, carried out by the Institute of Alcohol Studies and set for publication this autumn, found that the average European has their first drink at the age of 14.
69% of survey participants agreed that advertising influenced their perceptions of drinking, 78% believed that alcohol adverts should not target young people and 77% agreed that alcohol should carry health warnings.
48% believed that alcohol advertising should be banned completely, while 53% owned a piece of alcohol-branded merchandise.
Another study carried out by the Institute for Social Marketing in the UK found that 97% of 15-year olds and 96% of 13-year olds were exposed to alcohol advertising at some point in the average day.
"They are being continuously bombarded with marketing and inundated with pro-drinking messages," said Gerard Hastings, a professor at the institute. "Alcohol marketing is astonishingly ubiquitous," he added, despite its "completely predictable effects".
"To own sociability is to own the booze market. Drinking becomes about mates, friendship, hopes and dreams. The industry spends millions on marketing so it must work," said Hastings.
"There is no doubt that when you ban alcohol advertising to young people, consumption falls. The wider the ban, the bigger the fall in consumption," he claimed.
In many EU countries, it is against the law to explicitly link the consumption of alcohol to increased sociability. "But companies always imply it. It's impossible to regulate the content of such subtle and insidious communications," Hastings said.
"It is equally predictable that the industry denies all allegations against it. But the effects of marketing on children's behaviour have already been established for tobacco and energy-dense food," he added.
Back in 2002, the European Court of Justice ruled that "it is undeniable that alcohol advertising acts as an encouragement to consumption".
"Marketing of alcohol to young people is driven by an understanding of identity formation," said Jan Peloza of the Alcohol Policy Youth Network, explaining why its consumption is linked to humour, attractiveness and social and sexual success.
Policymakers are torn between whether self-regulation or legislation is the best approach to take. Studies have shown that self-regulation tends to lead to restrictions on the content of alcohol adverts, whereas legislation restricts the volume of advertising.
For experts like Hastings, "the only solution is to control the very existence of alcohol marketing, not just its content".
He was echoed by Wim Van Dalen of the Dutch Institute for Alcohol Policy, who cited studies proving that legal restrictions are more effective than self-regulation and called for a blanket ban on advertising alcohol on European TV screens from 6:00 until 23:00.
"Self-regulation is ineffective and examples from France and Sweden prove that bans do not conflict with EU legislation. In fact, an EU-wide ban would be justified on economic grounds by harmonising laws and preventing trade distortions, as well as on grounds of protecting health," Van Dalen claimed.
"But Europe has limited power so bans will have to be national for now," he added.
Indeed, stakeholders will have to wait until next year's review of the EU Health Strategy to assess the likelihood of legislation restricting alcohol advertising emerging from Brussels.