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Health Ministers agree on the need for common EU alcohol policy- details to follow?

Yesterday (21st April) The Health Ministers and Heads of Delegation discussed the need for a new policy framework for reducing alcohol-related harm.

The Health Ministers confirmed that the five EU Alcohol Strategy priorities — pricing and tax measures, marketing and restrictions on the availability of alcoholic beverages, legal measures to reduce drink driving, and the raising of public awareness — are still very important. In order to achieve the objectives set out in the global plan to reduce non-infectious diseases on cutting alcohol-related harm by 10%, it is important to continue to work together.

The European Commission was represented by Ladislav Miko (Deputy Director-General for the Food Chain of the Health and Consumers DG of the European Commission) and as described by Mr Miko the European Commission had been in a “listening mood”. It was argued that as most of the competences in health policy lie with member states, the European Commission will only support member states in areas of “three P’s” presented by the Commissioner on many occasions

  • Prevention (from getting ill)
  • Promotion (of healthy living)
  • Protection (from infectious diseases, food crises and other threats).

Details of the new policies were not discussed, the Ministers talked if there is a need for a new policy. More than 20 countries had actively participated in discussions, of which majority was in favour. Only two countries expressed their doubts whether there existed a need and one did not participate.

When asked about pricing policies, Guntis Belēvičs (Latvian Minister for Health) replied that experts say that not only pricing but also the purchasing capacity of people is important. He referred to the example of Lithuania which, according to him, shows that the price of alcohol should always be paralleled with the purchase capacity of people. He concluded that in Latvia the price could and should be higher but that there is a lot of pressure from interest groups. He said that alcohol will become more expensive and that the government will use the money to provide more free lunches for fourth grade children at school.

An issue that rose particular interest was labelling, caloric content and adding nutritional and ingredients listings, as it is required for all other drinks.

The European Commission has not precisely declared their point of view and any future actions. Ladislav Miko said that an EU-decision on this will be driven by individual member states on this issue. He did however argue that information about calories is useful in making choices about consumption of nutrition. He referred to the beer sector which will provide this information voluntarily on labels.

In 2011 the European institutions passed legislation that requires food and soft drinks, including fruit juice and milk, to label nutritional information and ingredients. However, alcoholic beverages were exempted from this obligation.

However, that Regulation also obliged the European Commission by 13 December 2014 to produce a report concerning the application of ingredients listing and nutrition declaration to whether alcoholic beverages should in the future be covered, in particular, by the requirement to provide information on the energy value, and the reasons justifying possible exemption.

However as end of April the European Commission has not produced such a report nor has it indicated when it will speed up on it.

Recently, the European Parliament has taken a voice in the debate, asking for the European Commission to step up its actions on alcohol (for more information please read: European Parliament’s Public Health committee calls for better drinks labeling as part of a new Alcohol Strategy to reduce harm)

Moreover, even the alcohol industry has called on more action on alcohol, with some sectors, namely the brewers being a head of the game with a voluntary commitment to labelling.

It remains to be seen whether the agreement for common policy will translate into EU coordinated actions.

Picture from Latvian Presidency of the Council of the European Union