European Union: The New EU Strategy To Reduce Alcohol-Related Harm

Last Updated: 15 January 2007
Article by Cédric Grolleau and Jackie Smith

The European Commission published its long-awaited Communication on a strategy to support EU Member States in their efforts to reduce alcohol-related harm1 at the end of October (the "Strategy"). The document reviews the adverse health effects of harmful and hazardous alcohol consumption as well as the related social and economic consequences. It also maps actions which have already been taken by the Commission and Member States, identifies good practices which have lead to positive results and considers areas of socio-economic importance and EU relevance where it believes further progress could be made.

The Commission stresses in the introduction to the Strategy that it is not a reflection on alcohol use as such, but rather on alcohol misuse and its harmful consequences, such as alcohol-related road accidents.

BACKGROUND

The EU’s Council of Ministers (the "Council") adopted a Recommendation in 2001 on the drinking of alcohol by young people, in particular children and adolescents.2 This invited the Commission to follow-up, assess and monitor developments and the measures taken by Member States and to report back to the Council on the need for further actions. The Council also invited the Commission in its Conclusions of 5 June 2001 to put forward proposals for a comprehensive Community strategy aimed at reducing alcohol-related harm to complement national initiatives. This invitation was renewed by the Council in June 2004 in its Conclusions on alcohol and young people.

The Strategy is the Commission’s response to this request and follows extensive consultation of stakeholders. The Commission also prepared various background reports, in particular on the implementation of a June 2001 Council Recommendation, an impact assessment and an ex ante evaluation of economic impacts of EU alcohol policies, to assist it in the preparation of the Strategy.

Presenting its Strategy, the Commission stated that 55 million adults are estimated to drink to hazardous levels in the EU and that harmful and hazardous alcohol consumption is a net cause of 7.4% of all ill-health and early death in the EU. In addition, it said that approximately one accident in four can be attributed to alcohol consumption, and about 10,000 people are killed in alcohol-related road accidents in the EU each year.3 The Commission also highlighted the rising levels of binge drinking and under-age drinking and reported that the cost of alcohol-related harm to the EU’s economy has been estimated at €125 billion for 2003, equivalent to 1.3% of GDP.4

The Strategy acknowledges the efforts and actions taken by Member States at national level to reduce alcohol-related harm. However, it argues that studies have shown that in some areas, particularly where there is a cross-border element, better co-ordination at EU level may be needed. In this respect it highlights cross-border sales promotion of alcohol which could attract young drinkers and cross-border television advertising of alcoholic beverages that may conflict with national restrictions. It also notes that some problems are common to all Member States, such as under-age drinking and alcohol-related road accidents.

SCOPE OF THE STRATEGY

The Strategy does not set out nor propose to develop harmonised EU-level legislation in the field of prevention of alcohol-related harm. Instead, the Strategy is designed to help co-ordinate the Member States’ actions to combat alcohol abuse, to encourage, through examples of good practice, Member States to reduce alcohol-related harm, and to improve and co-ordinate the monitoring of alcohol consumption in the EU.

The limitation of the Strategy’s ambition to non-legislative actions results from several main factors. Firstly, as the Strategy acknowledges, there are different cultural habits related to alcohol consumption in the different Member States and alcohol abuse is far from being a uniform concern within the 25 member countries; consequently, therefore, action cannot be easily generalised to the whole EU.

Secondly, the EU’s competence to intervene in the health sector is limited by the Treaty, as the Member States only agree to share this field with the EU and, in addition, only in limited fields of actions (Article 152 EC)5. As a result, actions by the Commission are essentially limited to complementing national policies directed towards improving public health, preventing human illness and diseases and obviating sources of danger to human health and to encouraging co-operation between the Member States.

In this context, the Commission identifies three main roles for itself, namely:

  • to inform and raise awareness on major public health concerns at EU level and to co-operate with Member States in addressing these
  • to initiate action at EU level when this relates to its field of competence, in particular through sectoral programmes and
  • to support and help co-ordinate national actions, in particular by identifying and disseminating good practice across the EU and by financing projects through the EU’s Public Health and Research Programmes.

CONTENT OF THE STRATEGY

The Commission identified five priority themes, under each of which it identified specific aims. These priority themes, and related aims, are:

Theme one: to protect young people, children and the unborn child

Aims:

  • to curb under-age drinking, reduce hazardous and harmful drinking among young people, in co-operation with all stakeholders
  • to reduce the harm suffered by children in families with alcohol problems and
  • to reduce exposure to alcohol during pregnancy, thereby reducing the number of children born with Foetal Alcohol Disorders

Theme two: to reduce injuries and deaths from alcohol-related road traffic accidents

Aims:

  • to contribute to reducing alcohol-related road fatalities and injuries

Theme three: to prevent alcohol-related harm among adults and reduce the negative impact on the workplace

Aims:

  • to decrease alcohol-related chronic physical and mental disorders
  • to decrease the number of alcohol related deaths
  • to provide information to consumers to make informed choices and
  • to contribute to the reduction of alcohol-related harm at the workplace; and promote work-place related actions

Theme four: to inform, educate and raise awareness of the impact of harmful and hazardous alcohol consumption and on appropriate consumption patterns

Aims:

  • to increase EU citizens’ awareness of the impact of harmful and hazardous alcohol consumption on health, especially the impact of alcohol on the foetus, on under-age drinkers, on working and on driving performance

Theme five: to develop, support and maintain a common evidence base

Aims:

  • to obtain comparable information on alcohol consumption, especially on young people; definitions on harmful and hazardous consumption, on drinking patterns, on social and health effects of alcohol; and information on the impact of alcohol policy measures and of alcohol consumption on productivity and economic development and
  • to evaluate the impact of initiatives taken on the basis of the Commission’s Communication.

The Commission proposes that each theme and the aims identified under each should be pursued at three levels, namely:

  • action by the Commission itself (for example, monitoring of alcohol consumption, exchange of countries good practices)
  • actions implemented by Member States at national and local level and
  • co-ordination of actions at EU level, in particular in respect of alcohol and health, drink-driving and commercial communication, involving experts from stakeholder organisations, including industry, and representatives from the Member States.

CO-ORDINATION OF ACTIONS AT EU LEVEL

The initiatives under the planned co-ordination of actions at EU level specifically foresee the active participation and involvement of industry. In particular, among others, the Commission proposes to establish an Alcohol and Health Forum and to work with stakeholders to promote responsible commercial communication and sales.

Alcohol and Health Forum

One of the main initiatives foreseen under the Strategy is the creation by June 2007 of an Alcohol and Health Forum. Based on the model of the EU Platform for Action on Diet, Physical Activity and Health, the Forum will bring together experts from different stakeholder organisations, (including industry, non-governmental organisations and health experts) and representatives from Member States and other EU institutions and agencies.

The primary aim of the Forum will be to support, provide input for and monitor the implementation of the Strategy. The Commission anticipates that sub groups may be set up on specific topics such as research, information and data collection, and education (in line with the specific aims identified above).

The importance of building the necessary multi stakeholder co-operation through the creation of the Alcohol and Health Forum was underlined by Health and Consumer Protection Commissioner, Markos Kyprianou, in a speech to the European Forum on Responsible Drinking in Stockholm on 30 October 2006. The Commissioner stressed the intention was not to create "a talking shop". Instead he will be seeking "meaningful and verifiable commitments from all its members" and that "expectations on the alcohol industry to deliver will be high". He added that the industry has "a clear responsibility" with regard to its products and that the new Forum "will be the place [for the industry] to develop practical measures to live up to and fulfil this responsibility".

Commercial communication

The advertising of alcoholic beverages is regulated by various measures at EU level. For example, television advertising of alcoholic drinks is regulated by the Television without Frontiers Directive6 (which is currently under review and in the process of being updated). In addition, self-regulation has been under the spot light recently, notably in the multi stakeholder and multi sector Advertising Round Table established by the Commission. The latter, in a report released in 20067, has identified some key elements for effective self-regulation that will help create the parameters of behaviour for advertisers.

The Commission’s Strategy makes clear that it intends to work with stakeholders "to create sustained momentum" for co-operation on responsible commercial communication and sales, including the presentation of a model of responsible consumption of alcohol.

Moreover, the Commission sets out two very clear aims in respect of commercial communications:

  • to support EU and national/local Government actions to prevent irresponsible marketing of alcoholic beverages, and to regularly examine trends in advertising and issues of concern relating to advertising
  • to reach agreement with representatives from a range of sectors (hospitality, retail, producers, media/ advertising) on a (self-regulatory) code of commercial communication implemented at national and EU level in respect of alcohol products.

As an integral part of its approach to this area, the Commission intends to monitor and assess, via independent parties and against agreed benchmarks, the impact of self-regulatory codes on young people’s drinking and, specifically, industry’s compliance with such codes.

NEXT STEPS

The Council of Ministers adopted Conclusions on the Commission’s Strategy during its Health and Consumer Affairs meeting in Brussels on 30 November and 1 December 2006. The Council welcomed the Strategy "as a major step towards a comprehensive and coherent Community approach to tackle the adverse impact of excessive alcohol consumption on health and well-being in Europe". It indicated its support both for the priority themes identified by the Commission and for the actions set out in the Strategy, notably in respect of the need to develop a common, comprehensive and reliable evidence base on alcohol consumption and alcohol-related social and health harm, on the impact of alcohol policy measures and of alcohol consumption on productivity and economic development.

Consequently, it invited the Commission to continue its systematic approach to tackling alcohol-related harm at EU level, including the use of health impact assessment of Community actions where a health dimension is evident and to provide continuing support for Member States’ efforts to develop and sustain national alcohol policies to reduce alcohol-related harm.

The Council also requested that the Commission ensure balanced representation of stakeholders when setting up the Alcohol and Health Forum, including the public health community, NGOs and the alcoholic beverages production, retailing and hospitality sectors.

The Strategy will also be reviewed by the European Parliament in the spring, when it is expected to adopt a Resolution supporting the Commission’s recommendations.

Footnote

1 Commission Communication of 24 October 2006 on "An EU strategy to support Member States in reducing alcohol related harm", Com (2006) 625 final.

2 Council Recommendation 2001/458/EC, Official Journal L161 of 16.6.2001, p.38.

3 European Commission, IP/06/1455, Brussels 24 October 2006.

4 Commission, MEMO/06/297, Brussels 24 October 2006

5 Article 152 of the EC Treaty:

"• (...) Community action, which shall complement national policies, shall be directed towards improving public health, preventing human illness and diseases, and obviating sources of danger to human health. Such action shall cover the fight against the major health scourges, by promoting research into their causes, their transmission and their prevention, as well as health information and education. (…)

• The Community shall encourage co-operation between the Member States in the areas referred to in this article and, if necessary, lend support to their action. Member States shall, in liaison with the Commission, co-ordinate among themselves their policies and programmes in the areas referred to in paragraph 1. The Commission may, in close contact with the Member States, take any useful initiative to promote such co-ordination. (…)"

6 Council Directive 89/552/EEC of 3 October 1989 on the co-ordination of certain provisions laid down by Law, Regulation or Administrative Action in Member States concerning the pursuit of television broadcasting activities. Official Journal L298 of 17/10/1989, p.23).

7 Available on the Commission's website at: http://ec.europa.eu/consumers/overview/report_advertising_en.pdf.

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