Health chief: We have never wanted ‘drinking kills’ labels

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This article is part of our special report Reviewing Europe’s alcohol harm strategy.

A re-think of the EU's alcohol strategy, due in 2013, will focus on stronger health warnings to consumers, the European Commission's health policy chief has told EURACTIV in an interview. But the industry will first be given a chance to self-regulate.

The ability of the alcohol industry to regulate itself on advertising and warning labels will be crucial items for consideration, health department strategy chief Despina Spanou said, adding that self-regulation in these areas can work but only if properly implemented.

An evaluation report on the current strategy is due in September, which means that – accounting for due process and feedback – any revamp is unlikely to happen during the Cypriot EU presidency in the second half of 2012, she said.

Self-regulation show results, but has critics

A major conference scheduled to take place in September under the Cypriot presidency will discuss issues relating to the alcohol strategy in the broader context of chronic disease, to which alcohol use can contribute.

The current strategy involves a high degree of industry involvement through a stakeholder forum where the industry makes self-regulatory commitments subject to Commission scrutiny.

Spanou said this system has produced good results, but added that on issues such as advertising and labelling, civil society groups are eager to see tighter regulation.

“We want it [the alcohol industry] to show that self-regulation can deliver results, but they need to demonstrate that it can work,” Spanou said, adding that Commission President José Manuel Barroso had personally indicated a preference for more rigorous health warning labels.

“We have never wanted ‘drinking kills’ labels, but we have encouraged more health warnings. These can have an immediate impact on the choices that vulnerable groups (such as pregnant women and young people) make, so this is the direction we have asked the industry to go in,” she said.

National representatives to get involved

Spanou also said that the review of the strategy would seek to beef up the national involvement.

Currently a committee of experts from the member states meets several times a year to discuss the issue across the continent. “We want to take this up to a higher political level,” Spanou said. “Now that we see there is national-level action, we are hoping that we will identify ways of helping member states to do more and increase the number of member states taking actions.”

Recent actions have included controversial moves by Scotland and the UK to slap minimum prices on alcohol available in shops to counteract binge drinking.

Tax and pricing issues are within the domain of member states, Spanou said, but she added: “Our only concern is that these measures alone do not tackle the underlying problems of harm caused by alcohol and they require holistic action as well.”

In relation to threats of legal action by industry in response to minimum pricing, Spanou said: “We have not yet heard of any possible fragmentation in the internal market that might result. But if it came to that, then we are sure that stakeholders will draw it to our attention.”

Europeans have the highest per-capita consumption of alcohol and drinking causes nearly one in 10 cases of ill health and premature death.

The European Commission's informal alcohol strategy will be evaluated later this year. The policy objective of the strategy is to reduce the health and social harm due to alcohol consumption.

  • This weekIndependent evaluator on alcohol strategy consults with stakeholders with draft report.

  • Sept. 2012: Final evaluation report on alcohol strategy sent to the Commission.

  • Sept. 2012: Alcohol strategy discussed at Cypriot presidency event on chronic diseases.

  • Oct. 2012: Commission publishes evaluation report with preliminary remarks.

  • Q1 2013: Commission to decide whether to update existing strategy, or introduce more comprehensive alcohol regulation instruments.

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