Focus - Sweden puts alcohol in EU policy spotlight

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Sweden assumed the Presidency of the EU at the beginning of this month. With the country's history of control and high taxation of alcohol, the industry is expecting a tough six months. However, Ben Cooper writes, the Swedish presidency coincides with a hectic period of change for the EU which may reduce Sweden's scope for moving alcohol policy up the agenda.

The EU Presidency is only a six-month term but Sweden's presidency, which began this month, was always likely to seem a long six months for the drinks industry.

Issues such as alcohol taxation, pricing and availability, advertising and self-regulation have been much discussed in the EU in recent years. And with its own tight alcohol regulation and high taxation, Sweden generally takes a harder line than many other member states. So, the industry's self-regulatory efforts were always destined to have a tough examination during Sweden's term in the EU chair.

However, there are a number of factors which will give industry advocates heart. First, the glacial speed at which EU legislation proceeds means six months is little more than the blink of an eye. On alcohol policy specifically, the EU is midway through a strategy agreed in 2006. Also, while the EU Presidency gives Sweden significant scope for shaping debate on European policy, the powers are limited.

While alcohol policy, not surprisingly, features in the raft of issues that Sweden is looking to prioritise, it has placed the highest emphasis on areas such as the economic crisis and climate change. This presidency also coincides with a period of significant change for the EU, with the ratification of the Lisbon Treaty, a new European Parliament and the appointment of a new European Commission.

Precisely because of the comparatively short presidential terms, an agenda is determined for an 18-month period, so the Swedish priorities were decided in cooperation with France and the Czech Republic whose terms preceded this one.

That said, Sweden has signalled its intention to make alcohol an area of focus from the start, with emphasis being placed on alcohol and young people; commercial communications; the effectiveness of price policy; alcohol and the elderly; and Fetal Alcohol Syndrome.

Alcohol was discussed at an informal meeting of health ministers at Jönköping in southern Sweden last week. The meeting heard presentations on alcohol consumption among European students from the European School Survey Project on Alcohol and Other Drugs (ESPAD), and on alcohol marketing trends from the European Association of Communications Agencies (EACA).

Delegates were also shown alcohol advertising, and asked which ads were in keeping with self-regulatory codes and which were not. The same ads were shown to a group of young people, and their opinions were sought.

Giving a hint as to how the Swedish presidency might be looking to steer the debate, at the concluding press conference, Maria Larsson, the Swedish Minister for Elderly Care and Public Health, said of the advertising that there "was a certain amount of surprise at how much you could get away with, so perhaps certain people are not fully shouldering their responsibilities".

Meanwhile, at the same conference, EU Health Commissioner Androulla Vassiliou reiterated that the EU was midway through its alcohol-related harm strategy. The Directorate General for Health and Consumers (DG Sanco) will this year submit an interim status report on what has happened at EU and national level since the strategy was adopted. Vassiliou said the Commission would be reporting on the strategy at an expert conference on alcohol that the Swedish presidency has timetabled for September.

Precisely how much influence Sweden can bring to bear on that strategy is difficult to gauge. The Commission's status report will be more influential but the Swedish government has said that results from the September conference of experts will also help "form a basis" for conclusions on alcohol policy at the December Council meeting.

According to the official communiqué from Sweden, "the ambition of the Presidency is that the Council shall adopt conclusions at its meeting in December to support the EU alcohol strategy". At the very least, that leaves scope for certain criteria, such as marketing of alcohol to young people, taxation, and pricing, to be given greater prominence. "We must ensure that the measures to counteract the harmful effects of alcohol remain high on the EU's agenda," Larsson added.

The conference of experts in September could potentially be more uncomfortable for the industry than this month's meeting. While self-regulation was discussed at Jönköping, it will be given greater focus in September, with self-regulatory organisations invited to make presentations.

Jamie Fortescue, director general of European spirits trade association CEPS, was relatively upbeat following the Jönköping meeting, and the reaction of ministers to the ads they were shown.

"What the ministers seemed to find out is exactly what we already know," Fortescue tells just-drinks, "that self-regulation works well in a number of EU markets but it doesn't yet exist or work well in all EU markets, and we have already made a commitment in our Charter on Responsible [alcohol] Consumption that we will establish codes of conduct and systems in all 27 EU member states by the end of 2010."

While alluding to the fact that Sweden has other presidential priorities to attend to, notably the new parliament, the Lisbon Treaty, and the economic crisis, he adds that the Commission's interim report on the strategy and the Alcohol and Health Forum, an EU-led multi-stakeholder initiative in which industry is participating, would be significant.

"During these meetings, the European Commission will report on progress on the strategy and my understanding of what they'll say is that we're three years in, we're making progress, [and] the Alcohol and Health Forum is making progress," Fortescue says.

Commenting on the work of the Alcohol and Health Forum, Vassiliou said the industry had "made a number of commitments but we have to monitor their performance", which she said was the duty of the Commission and member states. But she added: "Self-regulation should go hand in hand with national regulatory measures if the need is felt by the national governments."

Fortescue stresses that industry is playing its part in terms of self-regulation of commercial communication and other initiatives, like server training and consumer information websites, and that the success of self-regulation in some markets had been acknowledged by DG Sanco. But he reiterates that the strategy needs to be given time.

"We are preparing for a certain amount of noise around the issue over the next six months but our message will be that the EU has a strategy, the strategy runs until 2012, we are working with the EU in implementing the strategy and it should be given time to work. It's too early to judge the overall effectiveness of the strategy."

That may all be true but the expert conference in September will lend a far higher profile to the interim evaluation of the strategy than might have been the case had another country held the presidency. While marking the midway point for the strategy, it will also be the halfway stage of what could be a gruelling six months for the drinks industry.

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