This article is part of our special report Reviewing Europe’s alcohol harm strategy.
Rising alcohol taxes and minimum pricing strategies will boost the amount of “unrecorded alcohol” consumed in Europe, increasing bootlegging and health risks, industry-backed advisors have warned.
According to the last global estimates of unrecorded alcohol produced by the UN World Health Organization in 2005, 22% of total adult consumption in Europe during 2005 was unrecorded.
Unrecorded alcohol is untaxed and unregulated because it is produced, distributed and sold outside formal channels. It includes homemade and smuggled alcohol and alcohol intended for industrial or medical uses.
There are no generally accepted standards for quantifying the extent of the informal beverage alcohol market or for charting its health consequences. Since the alcohol content of moonshine and industrial alcohol is beyond the reach of regulators, it is impossible to monitor its danger to health or guarantee that the product is consistent.
The International Centre for Alcohol Policies (ICAP) – an industry-backed organisation – is conducting research into the incidence of noncommercial alcohol in various target countries where current data are inadequate or unavailable.
Although the research is not yet complete, Marjana Martinic, ICAP’s deputy president, told EURACTIV that proportions or unrecorded alcohol are higher in Eastern Europe, and increased taxation and minimum pricing of alcohol – such as the United Kingdom, the Netherlands and Malta are considering – are all factors that can drive consumption into the unrecorded sector.
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“Our research shows that preference for beverages is dependent on the prices people pay. Heavier drinkers trade down so when the price goes up they will substitute something less expensive,” said Martinic.
Heavy drinkers frequently turn to ‘surrogate’ alcohols, she said, adding that this is a particular problem in Eastern Europe.
“In the Baltic countries, for example, cologne is an issue. It’s much cheaper than other taxed beverages, and people will therefore drink non-potable alcohols such as window-washing fluid and colognes, and there is a public health issue with that,” she said.
Price hikes in alcohol also promote smuggling which also has a knock-on effect on health, Martinic said.
Pierre-Olivier Bergeron, the Brewers of Europe secretary-general, said a recent study of Swedish alcohol markets revealed that 30% of the beer purchased is unrecorded due to the high excise duties.
“It was smuggled by extremely well organised networks that manage to reach out to under-aged drinkers," he said.