EU cannot legislate on consumption of alcohol

Drinking habits are an issue to be dealt with at member state level, writes Renate Sommer.

By Renate Sommer

25 Nov 2014

Luxury items such as alcoholic beverages are part of everyday life in Europe. Alcohol has been around for thousands of years and is part of European culture. This culture is shaped by national and regional specialities, be it French wine, Bavarian beer or Scottish whisky.

European products are synonymous with tradition, enjoyment and quality. Then, of course, there are the economic benefits. The production, marketing and sale of alcohol secures millions of jobs in the EU.

The other side of the coin is alcohol abuse. The vast majority of Europeans drink moderately and through habit, for example, a glass of wine with food. However, problems can arise when alcohol is consumed to excess. Young people, in particular, often do not know their limits or deliberately exceed them to the point of binge drinking, just to distinguish themselves. The resulting damage to health, including accidents in the public transport sector, can result in high costs for national economies.

The social consequences of alcohol abuse should not be understated either. Addiction-related personality changes tear families apart and lead to impoverishment for those affected. Another problem is drinking alcohol while pregnant, which can cause serious harm to the unborn baby. Far too little is known about foetal alcohol syndrome (FAS), which in its severest form can lead to physical abnormalities, developmental defects and frequently incurable behavioural disorders.

"There cannot be one unified approach throughout the EU to reduce the consumption of alcohol"

The approach taken by the European commission in 2006 to assist member states in the fight against alcohol abuse with a coordinated strategy was correct, in principle. The recommendation to introduce a zero alcohol level for novice drivers and the exchange of best practices are sensible approaches. However, making decisions on specific action is the responsibility of the member states.

There are voices who wish to completely ban the public consumption of alcohol in Europe. On the other hand, calls for warnings on bottles, massive tax increases for alcoholic drinks and bans on advertising and selling seem remarkably moderate. But would it really be sensible to lay down new restrictive measures throughout the EU for all alcoholic beverages?

Drinking habits vary across the EU. While quite a lot of spirits are consumed in eastern and northern Europe, the French tend to drink a glass of wine and Germans a beer in the evenings. Therefore, there cannot be one unified approach throughout the EU to reduce the consumption of alcohol.

Furthermore, manufacturers have already achieved great success from voluntary measures. In the 'alcohol and health' forum, businesses and healthcare experts exchange information about preventative measures and the self-regulation of advertising. The majority of manufacturers have voluntarily ceased advertising aimed at young people.

"Legislators cannot be responsible for pressurising people to adopt healthy lifestyles"

Throughout the EU, the consumption of alcohol is decreasing – including among young people. In contrast, a general ban on alcohol would make the product more appealing, particularly to young people. This is why educating young people about the dangers of alcohol abuse is a more promising approach. This needs to take place mainly in families and schools but will also require support from appropriate bodies within the member states.

Labels displaying the energy content of alcoholic beverages could also deter people from 'hitting the bottle', for example, young girls watching their figures. How many people are aware that one glass of wine contains as many calories as a bar of chocolate?

It will be interesting to see whether the commission submits recommendations in its report regarding possible nutritional labelling of alcoholic drinks. When it comes to consumption among young people, the problem is not a lack of regulations but the inadequate enforcement of existing national laws on child protection.

What we need is consistent on the spot inspections, including with a view to licensing and sales restrictions, as well as strict penalties for non-compliance. Experience shows that massive increases in alcohol taxes encourage smuggling and black market trade. This is neither in the interest of member states nor manufacturers.

"Member states need to shoulder their responsibility to educate their citizens and enforce existing laws"

It would also be unfair to punish the vast majority of citizens who drink responsibly for the misconduct of a minority. Instead, the objective must be to analyse the societal causes of alcohol abuse and counteract them with appropriate measures.

Finally, it must be pointed out that legislators cannot be responsible for pressurising people to adopt healthy lifestyles. It is also very unlikely that it would work. Pressure creates counter-pressure and these kind of laws would only push citizens further into the arms of Eurosceptic parties. Rather than establishing new restrictions, it is time to finally focus on what matters – a promising approach.

Member states need to shoulder their responsibility to educate their citizens and enforce existing laws. We do not need a new European alcohol strategy to do this.

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