An EU Communication, currently being drawn up by the European Commission and due to be published in mid-2006, is likely to go further than any previous EU policy statement on alcohol regulation. Alan Osborn looks at the measures being discussed including an EU-wide drink-driving limit.

A major battle is looming over the European Union's (EU) alcohol policy, with the UK seen by many as the major opponent of tougher anti-drink legislation. A Communication (formal policy paper) setting down "a strategy on alcohol-related harm" is being drawn up by the European Commission, but while this is not due for adoption until mid-2006, furious lobbying on both sides is already evident.

"We're studying, with stakeholders and the member states, what should be addressed in such a Communication," says Philip Tod, health and consumer affairs spokesman. "It has been requested by the health ministers but it will be issued in the name of the Commission,"

Markos Kyprianou, the EU health commissioner, has said he wants the emphasis to be "on voluntary actions rather than on legislative action". While the specific recommendations in the Commission's communication have far from been agreed, the drinks industry has been alarmed by a number of proposals already put forward informally by Commission staff. These have been considered this year by a working group on alcohol whose report was recently discussed by a round table of member states, the drinks industry and non-governmental organisations (NGOs).

The contested ideas include a minimum age of 18 for buying wine and beer and a common limit of 0.5 promile for permitted alcohol in the blood of drivers. "Yes, there is ongoing discussion about a common age but I emphasise that no decisions have yet been made," says Derek Rutherford, secretary of Eurocare, a European alliance of NGOs working to reduce alcohol-related harm, who was at the round table.

There's no doubt in the minds of Rutherford and others driven by health considerations that they are up against an extremely powerful and determined opponent in the form of the drinks producers. "But there are more important considerations than the economic one," said Tamsin Rose, strategic adviser to the European Public Health Alliance. "Industry arguments about the number of jobs that they provide, the tax that they generate and the exports that they represent pale into insignificance when the real enormous human, social and economic cost of alcohol is revealed." An EU alcohol policy should include "controls on the availability of alcohol, licensing restrictions, pricing and fiscal measures, limits on promotion and advertising of alcohol particularly to young people," she continued.

While open to the idea of co-operation with government agencies and some legislative intervention, the drinks industry generally lobbies hard against tougher forms of regulation and has fought its corner with considerable tenacity, and no little success.

But this Communication may represent the toughest challenge yet to drinks industry lobbyists with regard to the EU. Besides proposing a common minimum buying age and driver's alcohol/blood levels, other proposals in the draft working group paper include higher taxes on alcoholic drinks, increased disclosure of alcohol levels, restrictions on advertising and a reduction in the number and types of establishments permitted to sell drinks. This is all highly contentious and, probably, in part unrealistic.

Commission officials agree that the very strong EU wine and beer organisations will seek to choke off any move towards higher taxes, for instance, and this will show up in the stance taken by the French, German, Italian and Spanish governments among others.

More generally, it looks as if the UK will be at the forefront of opposition to an EU-wide blood/alcohol level for drivers, raising age limits and restricting sales outlets. "I deal with Europe a lot and the weakest link in alcohol policy has always been the British government," Rutherford says. For the drinks sector, of course that may mean the 'strongest link' if you share the industry's viewpoint about unnecessary and burdensome legislation.

Arguably the UK's most prominent drinks industry lobby group is the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA) which naturally backs the UK government in its support of a more liberal approach to regulation. The SWA says the ultra-regulatory Scandinavian model of alcohol regulation does not "stand up."

Campbell Evans, director of consumer affairs at the SWA, said: "We know that high taxation in Sweden has not stopped alcohol harm but what it has meant is that a lot of market supplies become illegalised through home distillation or brewing, smuggling etc and that is not the way forward."

That said, Rodolphe de Looz-Corswarem, secretary general of the Brewers of Europe, says there's a "common enemy" to both sides, namely the abuse of alcohol. The Commission staff had proposed 65 measures "and out of that we will certainly oppose only eight, we'd fully support 21 and we need clarification in 36." The first thing the brewers wanted was to be able to "keep some freedom of advertising," he said. The beer industry wanted to target alcohol abusers "but Europe is a lot of different cultures, different people and we have to respect that."

Like other alcoholic drink organisations, Britain's Gin and Vodka Association says the EU policy should be focused on "harm from the irresponsible consumption of alcohol rather than alcohol itself." The association's assistant director Vivian Cuckow said it sought an inclusive report "that includes aspects like education and self-regulation", and most importantly provided evidence-based analysis.