Alcohol is still the third biggest cause of preventable death and disease in Europe, with alcohol-related illness responsible for more than 100,000 deaths a year. It’s clear we need a coordinated strategy at EU-level to help reduce harmful alcohol consumption and safeguard the health of our citizens.
The European commission's previous strategy to support member states in reducing alcohol-related harm ended in 2012. That strategy worked well but, despite pressure from MEPs and from EU member states for the commission to come forward with a new strategy, we have no indication when, or even if, a new strategy will be proposed.
Meanwhile, alcohol remains a huge problem, which is estimated to cost the EU economy €125bn a year and is linked to a range of health problems, including liver disease, heart disease and cancer. While health policy is largely a member state competence, there are ways that the EU can take action to reduce alcohol consumption and alcohol related harm and I would like to see a new alcohol strategy that reflects this.
"Alcohol remains a huge problem, which is estimated to cost the EU economy €125bn a year and is linked to a range of health problems, including liver disease, heart disease and cancer"
For example, rules on alcohol labelling ought to be strengthened. Heavy alcohol consumption is linked to obesity, which is the fourth biggest cause of preventable illness in the EU and is linked to chronic health problems such as diabetes. Yet many people are unaware of just how many calories are in the alcohol they consume. When we were negotiating EU rules on food labelling in 2011, I wanted to see alcohol treated the same as other drinks, with mandatory calorie labelling. Unfortunately, due to heavy lobbying from the alcohol industry and the fact that some MEPs were keen to protect their national drinks, alcohol was exempted from these rules.
Frankly I think it’s ridiculous that consumers are able to know how many calories are in a can of coke or a glass of fruit juice, but aren’t told that a large glass of wine contains as many calories as a piece of cake. I asked the EU's new health commissioner Vytenis Andriukaitis about this during his hearing and I was pleased that he agreed with me. I hope this means that the commission will be prepared to reconsider labelling rules for alcohol and introduce mandatory calorie labelling.
A new strategy should also examine the idea of minimum pricing for alcoholic drinks. Price is one of the most effective ways to influence alcohol consumption and, while we need to make sure it is done properly and doesn't just lead to higher profits for supermarkets, I believe it's something we should be seriously considering. Minimum pricing would target very cheap drinks, like those that are targeted at young people, and encourage people to drink in moderation. Similarly, we could also look more into the feasibility of WHO recommendations on restricting marketing for alcohol and when and where it can be sold. We need to think about whether it's appropriate for drinks companies to sponsor sports events or advertise in places where they're likely to appeal to children and teenagers.
"Price is one of the most effective ways to influence alcohol consumption"
In addition, the EU can do more to support alcohol research and play a role in raising awareness of the harmful effects of alcohol. Currently only three per cent of the health programme budget is directed towards alcohol research and I’d like to see this increased. We also need to make sure people know the health risks associated with alcohol and what constitutes harmful consumption. Europe is the heaviest drinking region in the world and there has been a dramatic and worrying increase in the number of people under 30 suffering from alcohol related diseases. For example, there is a clear link between alcohol and cancer, but research has found that one in five Europeans do not believe there is a connection.
From initiatives to support research, share best practice and raise awareness, through to regulating the labelling and marketing of alcohol, the EU can and should play a role in reducing harmful alcohol consumption. Ultimately we need a European policy on alcohol that puts the health of our citizens before the interests of the alcohol industry, and we urgently need a new alcohol strategy that sets out how we intend to do this.