Europeans have the highest per-capita consumption of alcohol, and drinking causes nearly 1-in-10 cases of ill health and premature death, according to EU data. The European Commission’s informal alcohol strategy, launched in 2006, is set for a detailed evaluation in 2013, with the policy objective of reducing the health and social harm caused by excessive alcohol consumption.

In the first of a three-part analysis, EurActiv summarises the lay of the land.

An average adult (aged 15+ years) in the European Union (EU) consumes 12.5 litres of pure alcohol or nearly three drinks a day, the World Health Organization (WHO) stated in its 2012 report 'Alcohol in the European Union - Consumption, Harm and Policy Approaches'.

This is more than double the world average.

Harmful and hazardous alcohol consumption is the third largest risk factor for ill health in the EU, responsible for 195,000 deaths each year and accounting for 12% of male and 2% of female premature mortality, according to the EU's first progress report on the 'Implementation of the EU Alcohol Strategy', published in 2009.

The estimated economic cost to the EU is around EUR125bn (US$163bn), the report says.

EU data indicates that alcohol consumption has remained broadly stable for most member states between 2002 and 2006, for example in Mediterranean countries such as France, Italy and Spain.

However, there was a steep increase in eight countries, led by Estonia (+40%), Latvia (+33%) and Poland (+25%). In contrast, the level of recorded alcohol consumption dropped by some 9% in Luxembourg and Malta during that period, the report notes.

The EU's 2006 alcohol strategy

Launched in 2006, the EU’s Alcohol Strategy is designed to help national governments and other stakeholders coordinate their action to reduce alcohol related harm in the EU.

However, the strategy does not impose concrete legislation on member states at this stage, relying instead on policy coordination and exchanges of best practices between countries. To do this, the strategy introduced an alcohol and health forum, launched in 2007, where member organisations - public and private - are invited to debate, compare approaches and take action to tackle alcohol related harm (click here to read the Commission's summary report on commitments made by the forum).

Harmful and hazardous alcohol consumption has a major impact on public health and generates costs related to health care, health insurance, law enforcement and public order, and workplaces.

Harmful alcohol consumption also has a negative impact on labour and productivity. Therefore, the EU wants to foster workplace-based initiatives. Stakeholders such as business organisations and trade unions have a particular responsibility in this regard.

Five priorities

The Commission strategy identifies the following five priority themes, which it considers relevant in all member states:

  • Protect young people, children and the unborn child;
  • Reduce injuries and death from alcohol-related road accidents;
  • Prevent alcohol-related harm among adults and reduce the negative impact on the workplace;
  • Inform, educate and raise awareness on the impact of harmful and hazardous alcohol consumption, and on appropriate consumption patterns;
  • Develop and maintain a common evidence base at EU level.

These priorities are reflected in three working groups established under the EU alcohol and health forum on the following topics: youth-related aspects, marketing and science.

Most member states now have a written alcohol policy in place. There is a continuous trend towards an age limit of 18 years for selling and serving alcohol, and towards lowered blood alcohol concentration limits for drivers of motorised vehicles.

Strategy update

The strategy is now up for review, and will draw on early conclusions from the first progress report, published in September 2009. In the updated strategy, the European Commission is expected to avoid any direct discussion over tax or pricing, which will remain a national prerogative.

However, the EU Executive will come under pressure to give clear guidance on how member states can impose pricing measures, especially since they are likely to be challenged under EU competition law.

Click here for part two of this analysis.

This article initially appeared on the Euractiv website.