Few people realise that alcohol, not smoking, is the biggest risk factor in the overall burden of diseases for people aged 15 to 49, leading to a sobering statistic of €155.8bn worth of direct social costs stemming from alcohol related harm.
It’s these appalling numbers that moved me into action as rapporteur on the European Commission’s alcohol strategy in the European Committee of the Regions (CoR).
One might say there’s nothing wrong with having an occasional glass of alcohol. I also enjoy a good glass of wine from time to time. Recent studies however show that even a moderate consumption of alcohol can increase physical and mental health risk.
And when the consumption of alcohol becomes all too frequent, problematic or addictive, it’s society as a whole that pays a price through the impact on healthcare, family relationships, road safety or in professional environments.
Around 25 per cent of all fatal car accidents relate to drink driving while an estimated five to nine million children living in families adversely affected by alcohol, suffer from worse health and educational opportunities. Additionally, 20 to 25 per cent of all workplace accidents involve people under the influence of alcohol.
And who picks up the tab? It’s mostly the local and regional authorities that deal with these effects, confronted by it in our hospitals, schools and on the streets of our towns and villages.
Statistics show that in my country, Sweden, alcohol consumption among young people has decreased at the same time as it has increased among women in their mid-life.
There are more and more signs that alcohol is behind different kinds of diseases, mostly cancers – throat, mouth, liver, and particularly breast cancer among women. Is the increased beer and wine consumption perhaps a sign of a society where people are too stressed and tend to drink one glass too many to relax?
It is clear that we need a new EU alcohol strategy to tackle alcohol’s serious societal, social and economic impact while relying on the expertise of local authorities.
"When the consumption of alcohol becomes all too frequent, problematic or addictive, it’s society as a whole that pays a price through the impact on healthcare, family relationships, road safety or in professional environments"
I knew that my work and final report on the alcohol strategy would be controversial in the CoR – our assembly has members from wine and spirit-producing regions in France, Spain, Italy and Poland, which make their living from alcohol, as well as local councillors and mayors from member states which have a much stricter approach to alcohol, such as Sweden.
However, we ended up with a balanced report, as we all agreed on one simple base-line: that the wellbeing, health and welfare of the European public must take priority over economic interests.
One of the proposals and call to action that I endorsed in my report is the urgent need to improve alcohol labelling at EU level. Consumers have a right to know what products contain so that they can make informed choices.
Why should alcohol beverages uniquely be exempt from ingredient and nutrition declaration requirements? Are we not trusted to make our own informed decisions? If we have a right to know for all other products, why don’t we have the same right when it comes to alcohol?
This disparity needs to be addressed. The industry was given a year to come up with voluntary labelling proposals, and that deadline of March 2018 is approaching fast. If voluntary labelling turns out not to work, we would need to look at legislation.
"As a rapporteur I will be looking at collecting and sharing best practices of different local and regional authorities from across the EU"
One important aspect for me here would be to adapt warning labels to the different target groups for a tailored and effective approach, just as in the marketing of alcoholic beverages: there should be specific warning label aimed at pregnant women, children, young people and drivers in publicising and reducing risks surrounding alcohol consumption.
In my recent discussion with health and food safety European Commissioner Vytenis Andriukaitis, we agreed on the urgent need to tackle the challenges of the adverse effects of alcohol consumption by joining forces.
As a rapporteur I will be looking at collecting and sharing best practices of different local and regional authorities from across the EU. The previous alcohol strategy expired in 2012, yet it pushed many member states to take different actions aimed at limiting the abuse of alcohol.
Once again, the European institutions have an important role to play in providing support for member states, encouraging cooperation and complementing national and regional policies. We need to adopt a new alcohol strategy urgently.
Therefore strong political leadership at all levels on this issue is therefore not just desirable – it is absolutely necessary to achieve success.