17th Feb 2020

Brussels waters down EU strategy against alcohol abuse

  • The industry is being encouraged to regulate itself rather than to be regulated by Brussels (Photo: Wikipedia)

The European Commission has outlined its strategy on how to tackle alcohol abuse - which causes seven percent of all ill-health and early death in Europe - watering down an earlier draft proposal which had advocated EU-wide measures.

The commission paper adopted on Tuesday (24 October) sets out five priorities, particularly on what needs to be done to protect young people and children, as well as reducing alcohol-related traffic accidents.

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Its research shows that about a quarter of 15 to 29 year-old boys and men and 10 percent of girls and women die due to hazardous alcohol consumption in the EU.

Alcohol is linked to one accident in four, with at least 10,000 people being killed in alcohol-related accidents on European roads.

The EU executive points to examples of "good practice" on how various member states deal with the gloomy trends, highlighting a special tax or compulsory labelling for alcohol products popular among youngsters - as introduced in Denmark, France, Germany, Ireland and Luxembourg.

Other countries require special labels to protect pregnant women or have imposed a minimum age of 18-years for being served alcohol.

In a draft version of the paper circulated among drink industry and public health groups in September, the commission called for similar measures to be introduced on an EU-wide basis.

The draft listed steps such as extra taxation for alcoholic drinks, special labels for pregnant women and a stronger call on member states to "re-examine their minimum age requirements for selling and serving of all alcoholic beverages."

The commission in September also indicated it wanted to see a common limit for permitted levels of alcohol in the blood stream of drivers, setting it at 0.5 promil, as well as more stringent punishment for drivers under the influence.

Alcohol industry satisfied

But in Tuesday's document - delayed by several months - Brussels has weakened its calls for alcohol-related measures and left it up to national governments to decide which good examples in the EU to follow, while stating it would consult industry on "responsible" advertising and sales of alcohol.

The Brewers of Europe, a beer producers' group, welcomed the policy document, highlighting the positive aspects of "tailored and targeted solutions in member states" rather than EU-wide restrictions.

"We have a positive role to play as part of the solution to misuse. We look forward to working constructively with the European Commission and other partners in developing this process," the group's secretary-general Rodolphe de Looz-Corswarem commented.

The European Spirits Organisation said the paper is balanced as it targets "alcohol misuse, rather than alcohol per se, and recognising the huge diversity of local drinking cultures within Europe."

Business over health concerns?

But health experts are disappointed.

According to Tamsin Rose from a Swedish public health group IOGT-NTO, the commission "has missed the point" by using the self-regulation route and national laws "because the existing system has failed to deliver health benefits."

Public health specialist Peter Anderson reacted, "The alcohol industry has lobbied to put their own profits above the needs of the European people," with commission officials other than those directly involved with health issues surrendering to its pressure.

He said the proposed EU alcohol policy is "much weaker, has a much greater focus on education as the answer to solving the problems of alcohol, when the evidence shows that it does not work, while mention of strategies that could have made a difference - like better regulation of the product and its marketing - can no longer be found in the text."

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