The third and final part of EurActiv's analysis of the European Union's alcohol harm reduction strategy focuses on the different positions being taken on different issues in different regions.

On industry self-commitments

Organisations fighting alcohol abuse are generally sceptical about the effectiveness of industry self-commitments.

“I am not happy with self-regulation alone as a stand alone measure [in relation to alcohol advertising],” said Marienn Skar, the secretary-general of Eurocare the alcohol policy alliance. “The problem is that there is no evidence that it has any effects.”

Consumer groups defending traditional beer culture also have their reservations about the initiative. “We think advertising is often used by larger brewers as market domination we are against mass advertising so blanket banning is not we believe the way to go,” said Ian Loe, of the secretariat of the European Beer Consumers Union (EBCU).

Loe explained: “Norway, for example, bans alcohol and beer [advertisements] even outside bars. But you can promote low-and non-alcoholic beer. So the larger brewers can still advertise. We are against mass advertising but we would like to see an open beer market and not one dominated by two brands to the exclusion of all else. We think it’s unfair competition.”

Alcohol producers, for their part, emphasised the industry's unity in addressing common challenges.

“Alcohol beverage producers take seriously the expectations from our consumers and society at large that our marketing communications must respect the highest standards. We are joining forces with our partners to show that meeting and exceeding these expectations continues to be our priority,” said Jean-François van Boxmeer, chief executive of Heineken.

“As business leaders we have a responsibility to lead by example, and this is a unique case of industry pooling its collective resources and experiences to build common alcohol marketing standards that will stand the test of time,” said Andrew Morgan, president of Diageo Europe, which owns brands like J&B whisky, Smirnoff vodka and Guinness beer.

“By setting self-regulatory standards that go significantly further than the law, and verifying that these are complied with, we will make a tangible difference to the governance of beverage alcohol marketing. This is an excellent example of the contribution of voluntary action to the objectives of the European Strategy on reducing alcohol-related harm,” said Christian Barré, chief executive of Domecq Bodegas, Pernod Ricard.

On minimum pricing

During Spring 2012, a wide public debate took place in Britain over the issue of minimum pricing rules.

“Binge drinking isn't some fringe issue, it accounts for half of all alcohol consumed in this country. The crime and violence it causes drains resources in our hospitals, generates mayhem on our streets and spreads fear in our communities,” according to UK Prime Minister David Cameron.

He added: “We're consulting on the actual price, but if it is GBP0.40that could mean 50,000 fewer crimes each year and 900 fewer alcohol related deaths per year by the end of the decade.”

“The Government needs to make sure it does not just create a cash windfall for the supermarkets, instead of lowering prices of other goods or supporting better prevention and treatment of alcohol abuse to cut crime further and save lives,” said the shadow UK Home Secretary, the Labour Party’s Yvette Cooper.

“I think one has to be quite sceptical,” said Gavin Partington, interim chief executive of the Wine & Spirit Trade Association. “Only a few months ago you have got two ministers saying they understand it to be probably illegal, and suddenly now they are advocating it - I don't think the legal position has changed any.”

“Irresponsible drinking has cultural causes and retailers have been hugely engaged in information and education to change attitudes to drinking,” according to Andrew Opie of the British Retail Consortium. “It's a myth to suggest that supermarkets are the problem or that a pub is somehow a safer drinking environment. Effectively, a minimum price is a tax on responsible drinkers,” Opie added.

“Health care workers who struggle every day to cope with the impact of our nation's unhealthy drinking will welcome tough new policies in areas such as price and licensing that are based on evidence and should bring about real benefits,” said Eric Appleby of Alcohol Concern.

“Europe’s brewers are opposed to further punitive tax hikes that harm the brewing sector, kill off further jobs and thereby damage Europe’s growth prospects. Beer consumption in the EU already declined by 8% in the two years following the start of the economic crisis, whilst 260,000 jobs were lost, primarily in the bars, pubs and cafés that depend on beer,” according to Pierre-Oliver Bergeron, secretary-general of the Brewers of Europe, the trade confederation of European brewers associations and breweries.

“As to whether tax and price increases are an effective way of addressing alcohol-related harm, we can only draw people’s attention to the fact that the highest prices and taxes are to be found in Scandinavia and the British Isles, the countries that interestingly also have the highest levels of binge drinking in Europe,” Bergeron concluded.

“Price plays an important part in consumption levels. And minimum pricing is a very equitable way to curb binge drinking and alcohol related harm as it will primarily affect young people and heavy drinkers,” said Monika Kosinska, secretary-general of health NGO the European Public Health Alliance (EPHA).

On the Scottish minimum pricing law

In May 2012, the Scottish parliament overwhelmingly passed a bill introducing a minimum price for a unit of alcohol.

"There is a pressing need for a wide range of measures to tackle excessive alcohol consumption. A minimum pricing scheme supported by a number of other measures, such as restrictions on the volume of adverts promoting alcohol, will help turn back our increasingly damaging patterns of consumption. The European Commission is to propose a new European Alcohol Strategy. We look forward to strong proposals that will ensure a level playing field across EU countries," concluded Kosinska.

“It [minimum pricing] will help Scotland achieve a ‘cultural shift’ in its unhealthy attitudes to alcohol,” said Scottish health secretary Nicola Sturgeon in the Summer of 2012. "This policy will save lives – it’s as simple as that."

“European law is clear - minimum pricing is an illegal barrier to trade. We fully agree alcohol misuse must be tackled, but other more effective measures can be used, without creating barriers to trade,” said Paul Skehan, director-general of the European Spirits Organisation.

“Whilst supporting the overall objective of reducing alcohol-related harm, The Brewers of Europe is of the opinion that the Scottish [minimum pricing] measure is an ill-conceived and mis-targeted measure that will artificially distort competition and discriminate against imported products,” said Pierre-Olivier Bergeron, secretary-general of the Brewers of Europe.

The European Spirits Organisation (CEPS) and the Comité Européen des Entreprises Vins – representing Europe’s liqueur and wine producers respectively – attached themselves to an action in the Scottish Court of Sessions launched by the Scotch Whisky Association to challenge the Scottish government.

They argue that minimum pricing represents an illegal barrier to trade, will discriminate between companies in the market and fail to address harmful drinking.

The group added that a minimum price is illegal under EU and global competition laws and would also ruin the Scottish whisky industry's efforts to counter price controls and high tariffs in overseas markets.

Timeline

  • October 2006: The first EU Alcohol Strategy adopted
  • September 2009: EU Commission releases first progress report on the implementation of the EU Alcohol Strategy
  • April 2012: Leading producers from the beer, wine and spirits sectors launch their first joint initiative in advertising self-regulation designed to combat abuses across social media
  • May 2012: The Scottish parliament overwhelmingly passed a bill introducing a GBP0.50 (EUR0.63) minimum price for a unit of alcohol, the first legally-binding minimum price within the EU
  • 2013: European Commission to review the EU's alcohol strategy
  • April 2013: Cut-price alcohol beverages will be outlawed in Scotland
  • By June 2013: World Federation of Advertisers to present a first progress report on implementation and compliance with the agreed common standards. A final report is due by February 2015.

This article initially appeared on the Euractiv website.