The EU's Alcohol and Health Forum will hold its fifth plenary meeting this Thursday. Industry representatives are hoping the meeting will focus on actions on the ground rather than become a policy 'talking-shop', writes Ben Cooper. Meanwhile, chairman Robert Madelin will once again have to demonstrate his legendary skills for keeping the peace between parties with widely differing views on alcohol-related harm.

This Thursday (12 Nov) sees a critical meeting of the EU Alcohol and Health Forum, set up as part of the EU Alcohol Strategy to bring all stakeholders - including industry - together to discuss ways of combating alcohol-related harm.

The Forum Plenary will discuss future directions for the Alcohol and Health Forum, it will review the most recent work of the Forum's Science Group, while the most recent conclusions of the Task Force on Marketing Communication will also be discussed. In addition, the meeting will discuss alcohol labelling and alcohol and young people, in particular school education about alcohol-related harm.

At one stage it was thought that the Task Force on Marketing Communication might be wound up at Thursday's meeting though it is now more likely that the group will remain in place for the time being. As discussed at the Forum's fourth plenary meeting in March, the Task Force on Youth-specific Aspects of Alcohol is to be wound up and a Clearing House is to be set up which would enable the collection and sharing of information on activities and projects on alcohol and youth health. Discussion of this process is also on the agenda.

There have also been discussions about the formation of a task force on labelling though no official mention has been made of possible new task forces in the draft agenda.

Established in 2007, the Alcohol and Health Forum is an ambitious attempt to bring together groups with widely differing views on the issue of alcohol-related harm. It is the brainchild of Robert Madelin, director general, DG Health and Consumers (DG Sanco).

Madelin is acknowledged as a past master at keeping debate between disparate groups amicable and positive and, as has already been the case with previous meetings of the Forum, those skills will once again be needed, as the Forum discusses some thorny issues, notably alcohol labelling.

Eurocare (The European Alcohol Policy Alliance), an alliance of 50 NGOs across 20 European countries working on the prevention of alcohol related harm, is to make a presentation on its alcohol labelling work at Thursday's meeting. The organisation advocates that all alcohol should by law be required to carry labels carrying details of ingredients, any substances with allergenic effect, relevant nutrition information and alcoholic strength, and, critically, also include a health warning.

The industry view is represented in the Forum by organisations such as European spirits trade body CEPS, Brewers of Europe, the Comité Européen des Entreprises Vin (CEEV) and the European Forum for Responsible Drinking (EFRD). As in previous meetings, industry representatives will be pushing for the Forum to discuss direct action and cooperation between NGOs and industry on the ground, rather than holding broad-based discussions on future policy.

Jamie Fortescue, director general of CEPS, believes it is important that the Forum focuses on what it is "supposed to do", and that is "action rather than policy discussion". Fortescue adds: "The Forum is not about policy, it's about working together."

This view is supported by Rodolphe de Looz-Corswarem, secretary General of Brewers of Europe. "The Brewers of Europe joined the Forum on the basis that, rather than be a talking-shop on alcohol policy, it would be focused on generating concrete, local actions, also helping to identify best practice initiatives that could be adapted to other national cultures and challenges," de Looz-Corswarem tells just-drinks. "We feel that more needs to be done to ensure that proposed polices are not divorced from the good activities that have been generated through the Forum."

Pointing out that Brewers of Europe had "demonstrated the commitment of the brewing sector to helping tackle alcohol-related harm" by making over a third of the hundred or so commitments to tackling alcohol misuse detailed during the term of the Forum, de Looz-Corswarem says Brewers of Europe "would like to see a return to the original aim of the Forum as a forum for action". He adds: "To do this, more commitments need to be generated, but also now is the time to look at and evaluate the effectiveness of the commitments made to date."

Fortescue also believes there has been an over-emphasis on the issue of alcohol advertising in the Forum discussions to date. However, there is certain to be further discussion of alcohol advertising on Thursday, particularly in the light of the conclusions by the Forum's Science Group, published at the last plenary, that there was "consistent evidence to demonstrate an impact of alcohol advertising on the uptake of drinking among non-drinking young people, and increased consumption among their drinking peers".

The Science Group further concluded: "This finding is all the more striking, given that only a small part of a total marketing strategy has been studied, and is corroborated by the results of the other methodologies, including qualitative, econometric, cross-sectional and experimental studies."

But it also stated: "It should be stressed that the studies come from countries with a long history of advertising and with relatively high levels of alcohol consumption, and it is difficult to speculate the size of the impact of marketing in cultures with either a short history of advertising or low alcohol consumption."

However, Professor Gerard Hastings, author of the well publicised report published by the British Medical Association in September calling for a ban on alcohol advertising, believes that the formal conclusion of the Science Group on the evidence of a link should inform the work of the Forum going forward. "That's a very important step," Hastings tells just-drinks. "The European Commission is now formally accepting that alcohol advertising is a public health problem." However, Hastings adds that the extent to which that view will influence future work of the Forum "remains to be seen".

Fortescue plays down the significance of the Science Group report. "If you read what the so-called unified view says, it says if there is a cumulative impact of advertising on young people's drinking behaviour, that effect is extremely small compared to other factors. Now whether that could provide the basis of evidence-based policy is a very different question, because then you obviously have to move into the discussion around proportionality."

Clearly, advertising and labelling will be among the most contentious subjects to be discussed at the forthcoming meeting. Robert Madelin has hitherto ensured that the discussions remain positive and cordial, and will likely prove to be a consummate moderator once again.

Looking ahead, however, the Alcohol and Health Forum is to remain in existence for the duration of the EU Alcohol Strategy, that is until 2012, by which time Madelin will have left his position. So one can only hope his successor is an equally skilled mediator.