Lords press Commission to act on alcohol

Opposition parties could join with Conservative rebels to vote against the UK government. [UK Parliament/ Flickr]

While the EU must act to combat alcohol-related harm, any new initiative by the European Commission should focus on measures within its powers, such as taxation and labelling, the UK’s House of Lords has said in a report published Friday (6 March).

The EU’s Alcohol Strategy ran from 2006 to 2012 and has now expired. The previous Commission, led by José Manuel Barroso, promised an update but did not deliver one. It is still unclear whether the new Commission will act. 

The House of Lords – the second chamber of parliament – said that while the EU’s previous strategy was well-intentioned, it did not concentrate on what the EU itself can act on. Consequently it achieved little, the Lords said.

In developing any new action, the Commission should concentrate on what the EU can do, over and above any initiatives the member states can take on their own. In particular, the EU should ensure that its own policies contribute to the reduction of alcohol-related harm and excessive drinking, the Lords said.

Self-regulation ‘not enough’ Lords say

Alcohol abuse is the third highest cause of disease and death in Europe, the region with the highest alcohol consumption per head in the world. The rate of deaths from liver disease in the UK has nearly quadrupled over the last 40 years.

“The previous EU Alcohol Strategy had the laudable goal of reducing alcohol-related harm, but the EU missed a real opportunity to take effective action in combatting alcohol abuse across all member states,” said Baroness Prashar, the Chairman of the Lords’ EU Committee. 

“During our inquiry we heard from manufacturers, retailers and advertisers about the voluntary initiatives they have developed to tackle the harm caused by alcohol abuse. Voluntary action alone is not enough. It must be backed by legislation at EU level, and industry should play a constructive role in bringing this about,” she continued.

‘Illogical taxation must be reformed’

The current EU alcohol taxation regime prevents member states from raising duties on the most harmful drinks, and provides incentives to purchase drinks with higher alcohol content. The Lords said, “This illogical taxation structure must be reformed.”

Baroness Prashar said that while the Minimum Unit Pricing (MUP) is a highly controversial topic, which sharply divides views, the Lords believe that MUP has been successful in bringing health benefits to the heaviest drinkers. 

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

>> Read: Scotland first to introduce minimum price on alcohol

Prashar added that the UK government should honour the commitment it gave in 2012 and follow suit.

UK and EU trade laws allow in principle for the setting of a minimum price for the retail sale of alcohol for public health purposes. The MUP in Scotland was set at 50p per unit and the legislation should have been implemented in April 2013. It was delayed by a legal challenge by trade bodies representing international alcohol producers – the Scottish Whisky Association (SWA), the European Spirits Association (Spirits Europe) and Comité Européen des Enterprises Vins (CEEV).

The Scottish high court ruled in 2013 that the government had the right to introduce a legally binding minimum price on alcohol. But the spirits industry appealed the ruling and referred it to the European Court of Justice (ECJ).

>> Read: Scotland wins court case on minimum pricing of alcohol

As a consequence, MUP will not come into force until the legal process is complete. In considering its position, the ECJ will ask for written submissions from EU member states, trade bodies and the Scottish government, and the Commission. 

Labelling battle

Meanwhile, a separate battle is brewing about consumer labelling for alcoholic drinks. EU rules for food and drinks labelling require mandatory nutrition information from 13 December 2016, except for alcoholic drinks.

The House of Lords urged the EU to amend the rules to also include alcoholic drinks. The labels should include, as a minimum, the strength, the calorie content, guidelines on safe drinking levels, and a warning about the dangers of drinking when pregnant. Voluntary commitments are not enough, the British lawmakers stated.

“The Latvian Presidency is holding a Council next month on EU alcohol policy. We hope that this report will encourage meaningful action on matters which are within the EU’s power,” the House of Lords’ EU Committee Chairman said.

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 in the EU.

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. Therefore, the EU wants to foster workplace-based initiatives. Stakeholders such as business organisations and trade unions have a particular responsibility in this regard.

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

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

European Commission

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