The drinks industry feared that the European Commission's communication on alcohol and health might recommend a significant tightening of alcohol legislation but, due in no small part to aggressive industry lobbying, the paper has taken a softer stance than was at one stage anticipated. Alan Osborn reports.

The long-awaited communication from the European Commission on alcohol and health has been well received by a drinks industry which had feared Brussels would burden it with marketing restrictions.

At times, in recent months, producers had feared they would be forced to print health warnings on labels, to restrict or censor advertising and possibly even accept higher taxes to reduce consumption. But the communication has recommended none of these measures and has taken a positive view towards self-regulation.

The Commission's Strategy to support Member States in Reducing Alcohol-related Harm, which is a communication to the Council, the European Parliament, the European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions, makes clear that the target of European Union (EU) policy in this area is not the consumption of alcohol in general but rather the abuse of it, as drinks companies and industry groups have long insisted it should be. The major responsibilities are to be on voluntary action by drinks producers. No doubt some will say that this relatively soft approach reflects heavy lobbying by the drinks industry in recent months, though that in itself does not necessarily invalidate the proposals.

The test will be what happens as the policy is developed in the EU institutions. At present, no specific legislation is foreseen but government ministers of the 25 EU member countries (to become 27 next year), as well as members of the European Parliament, will undoubtedly have a lot to say on the subject. Some MEPs have already accused the Commission of selling out to the drinks companies.

The Commission paper sets out five policy priorities, with the emphasis on the protection of young people and children and on the reduction of alcohol-related traffic accidents. It quotes research showing that about a quarter of 15- to 29-year-old males and 10% of females in that age bracket die in the EU due to hazardous alcohol consumption.

But, contrary to earlier expectations, Brussels does not recommend a special tax or labelling for alcoholic products aimed at young people throughout the EU. Instead, it suggests that such a policy, as practised in France, Germany Denmark and Ireland, is an example of "good practice" that could be widely copied. The same applies to a common limit of 0.5 promille for permitted levels of alcohol in the bloodstream of drivers, it says.

The EU health commissioner Markos Kyprianou rejected the charge that the strategy had been watered down. "The communication came out the way it was intended to," he said, though he admitted that he had been "surprised at the aggressiveness of the lobbying campaign by certain parts of the alcohol industry". The only effect of the lobbying, he said, would be "to create doubts as to their willingness to co-operate".

The main drinks associations, nevertheless, see the paper as a positive one. The wine industry, represented by the Comité Européen des Entreprises Vins (CEEV), said it would "take a leadership role in promoting moderation and responsibility in the consumption of wines, contribute towards preventing abusive and/or excessive consumption of alcoholic drinks, and co-operate effectively with the competent authorities and other relevant stakeholders in the prevention of abuse or misuse of wine". George Sandeman of Sogrape Vinhos, chairman of the CEEV's working group on wine and health, said the committee was "convinced that there is a business case for a healthy Europe and that wine is a part of it".

Jose Ramon Fernandez, secretary-general of CEEV, told just-drinks that wine producers would launch a plan early next year "to work with local authorities and stakeholders to carry out broad-based education on the effects of moderate consumption of wine". He welcomed Brussels' "significant" acknowledgement of the role of widespread education and information regarding the impact of harmful alcohol consumption and its acceptance that there were big cultural differences in drinking patterns throughout the EU.

Speaking for the beer industry, Rudolphe de Looz Corswarem, secretary-general of the Brewers of Europe, welcomed the paper, saying that, while most people consumed alcohol sensibly, the EU had a role to play in pointing out that its misuse could affect health and relationships. The EU could also help in the take-up of "best practices", assist in the provision of full information concerning alcohol abuse and support an educational programme. "We're ready to play our role and that's our message," he told just-drinks.

More surprisingly, perhaps, the Commission's paper drew a cautious welcome from Eurocare, the charity concerned with the problems of alcohol abuse from the health viewpoint. Andrew McNeill, director of the UK Institute of Alcohol Studies (IAS) and honorary secretary of Eurocare, said: "We welcome the communication. We're aware that it's not everything it might be. But in the real world any document is a compromise between conflicting interests. We'd want to acknowledge that the Commission's health and safety directorate has done its best in the face of what's been described as the most intensive lobbying campaign ever experienced." McNeill added that "this is the beginning, not the end and we'll have to see what develops from it in the future".