Alcohol policy a priority under Finnish EU presidency
EU alcohol controls are under review, and there have been concerns that the Finnish presidency could prompt a more draconian approach. Ismo Tuominen, head of alcohol policy at Finland's ministry of social affairs and health, discussed Finland's view on EU alcohol policy and its priorities in this area with Alan Osborn.
Current European Union (EU) president Finland will this year urge fellow member states to raise the political profile of alcohol as a threat to public health, bringing in specific measures to curb abuses. Finland's views are particularly important this year, because the European Commission is buffing up just such a plan for release in September or October, and the Finns will be pushing for agreement at the EU Council of Ministers in December.
In an interview with just-drinks, Ismo Tuominen, counsellor and head of alcohol policy at Finland's ministry of social affairs and health, singled out blood/alcohol limits and under-age drinking as two priority areas for action. He said he hoped a draft plan could be agreed at the EU health council on 1 December. As EU President, Finland control agendas for such councils and related committee meetings, until 2007.
Tuominen said that once the European Commission's communication on alcohol policy was published, "we'll know what the possibilities are". He also said Finland was aware that the EU could not draft legislation in certain areas because of limits in its jurisdiction over health, and he was also aware of the differences in the perception of alcohol across the EU.
"Some treat alcohol as economic commodity only and some regard it as a major threat to the well-being of society," Tuominen told just-drinks. "There will not be any attempt to push any country from its position. We respect other national balances but this process will be the first step in a political process to address alcohol at the EU level. The main point is to have a more balanced approach between the economic and the public health approaches and this will be our major objective."
It was true, Tuominen said, that many were confused about Finland's intentions during its EU presidency "as they know we have quite a strict alcohol policy with high taxes and a monopoly distribution and sales system". But the country strongly respected the policy of subsidiarity, which means that, wherever possible, decisions are taken by national authorities rather than at EU level.
Nevertheless, he made it clear that if, and when, Brussels recommended that certain steps be taken - and there was scientific evidence for them - then the Finnish government would be very keen to act. One such issue was the permitted level of alcohol in drivers' blood "which we know from scientific evidence is very effective." In this case, Finland would be "keen on pushing it forward and addressing it at the political level".
Another issue Finland is keen to highlight is under-age drinking where Tuominen said there was scientific evidence from the US that raising the minimum purchasing age to 21 "had an enormous effect on drinking and driving and traffic accidents".
Tuominen added, however, that he respected the view that age limits might not be the main issue within the EU. "There are countries with no age limits for purchasing alcohol and no problems with under-age drinking. There is a different social norm in such countries, where parents look out more for children. But low age limits may affect other countries and we must look at this. For instance, people come to Finland from Sweden because the age limits are lower here," he said.
However, Tuominen said his government would not be aggressively pushing for health warnings on alcohol. In spite of a recommendation made recently in 'Alcohol in Europe', a report compiled for the European Commission by the Institute of Alcohol Studies in London, that drinks should carry such warnings, Tuominen said "the evidence that warning labels change drinking habits is not strong". Drinking habits are "very difficult to change and we cannot be sure that labels are effective," he said, though he noted that France had just acted to bring in health labelling. Some people nevertheless wondered why drinks should not have to carry health warnings when many foods did "and if the Commission says there are no good reasons for alcohol to be left out, then we will support it, but we are not pushing this," he said.
As for proposals that the EU's minimum excise duty rate for alcohol be increased, Tuominen said this should not cause problems, as "only six or seven" of the 25 EU member states still applied the 1992 minimum rate and the extra duty involved for them would be manageable.
"For example, Germany would have to increase tax on beer by one cent a litre - or one third of a cent for one bottle of beer - and I cannot see any country considering this as impossible," he said. "For spirits there will be two or three countries at most which would have to increase their spirit taxes and then only by a small amount."
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