What Is Not on The Bottle? Future of alcohol labels discussed in the European Parliament
Brussels, 17 March 2011. Pick up just about any food or beverage product on store shelves and you'll find on the package information about calories, ingredients etc. Unless that is, the product is alcohol. Alcohol is one of the leading risk factors for death and ill health in the EU, especially among young people. It increases the risk of developing several types of cancer including those of the liver, digestive tract as well as breast cancer, it is responsible for 25% of deaths among young men aged 15-29, causes depression etc.
Shouldn’t consumers be informed about the potential health effects of its consumption? Why we do not know how many calories a glass of wine has?
Today politicians, public health experts and alcohol industry will meet at the European Parliament to discuss labelling of alcoholic beverages, what would be effective and why it should be done at the EU level. The focus of the meeting was on the PROTECT project, a research which gathered the opinions of 18-25 years old young people towards health warning labels in six European countries (Belgium, France, Hungary, Lithuania, Romania and Spain). Edita Petrauskaité, Lithuanian National Consumers Federation, who will present the project results, pointed out: "generally young people agree that alcohol labelling is needed. However they would like to avoid images showing dead people, accidents on the roads or liver cirrhosis. This fact tells that shocking and striking messages really make an impact and reminds about consequences in the right time". Patrick Veillard, researcher in the Belgian Consumer Organisation CRIOC which coordinated the PROTECT, added: "Like all of us, they do not want to be told what to do, so messages ‘don’t drink’ may not work. But I am sure they would be very interested to know how many calories their drink contains."
The European Parliament is currently debating the Commission’s proposal on the 'Provision of Food Information to Consumers'. Unlike soft drinks and juices, beer, wine and spirits have been exempted from the obligation to list ingredients and provide nutritional information. This is despite the fact that alcohol is high in calorie content, carbohydrates and certain ingredients used in its production can cause allergies or intolerances.
Mariann Skar, European Alcohol Policy Alliance Secretary General, emphasized: "it’s sort of bizarre that alcohol is the only consumable product sold in Europe that you can’t tell what’s inside the bottle, we believe that consumers should be informed about health risks associated with alcohol. Why should we not warn about such important issues as increased risk of getting liver cirrhosis, developing dependency or the dangers of drinking during pregnancy?"
The meeting was hosted by Scottish Member of the European Parliament Alyn Smith, who commented that: "Scotland's relationship with alcohol is no secret, and this is where the EU has a particular role to play; I’m not saying people shouldn't drink but having access to real information on just what we are tipping down our necks will allow people to make informed decisions. The European Parliament has obliged all food and non alcoholic drinks makers to sharpen up their act, now the drinks industry must do the same."
An overwhelming majority of Europeans want to be informed about consequences of drinking; 79% supports warning health messages on bottles and 82% are in favour of such warnings on advertisements (Eurobarometer 2009)
No one can deny that we have the right to know of what is in our drinks and should be informed about the risks we are taking while drinking. One could argue that the industry’s strong resistance to label alcoholic beverages really should make us all wonder, is the product so bad that it cannot even be labelled?
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Facts and figures on alcohol:
- Europe has the highest drinking levels in the world, the highest alcohol per capita consumption and the highest alcohol- related harm problems.
- Chronic diseases, to which alcohol is the 3rd main contributory factor, are in the top of global risks next to such threats like fiscal crises.
- Alcohol-attributable disease, injury and violence cost the health, welfare, employment and criminal justice sectors some €125 billion a year (equivalent to 1.3% GDP). This is figure for 2004 likely to be higher by now
- Alcohol is a major contributory factor in accidents; 1 in 3 of all road traffic deaths are caused by alcohol
- Alcohol causes nearly 195,000 deaths in the EU each year
- 1 in 4 of male deaths between 15-29 years are due to alcohol
 World Health Organization (2009). Global health risks. Geneva
World Economic Forum (2010) Global risks 2010. Geneva, Retrieved from: http://www.weforum.org/en/initiatives/globalrisk/Reports/index.htm
 Actual spending on alcohol related problems accounts for €66bn:
• Healthcare and treatment: The cost of treating alcohol-attributable ill health is estimated to be €17bn, together with €5bn spent on treatment and prevention of harmful alcohol use and alcohol dependence.
• Crime: Alcohol-attributable crime is estimated to cost European police, courts and prisons €15bn per year, as well €12bn in crime prevention expenditure & insurance administration and €6bn of criminal damage.
• Traffic accident damage (€10bn)
Potential production not realised due to absenteeism, unemployment and premature mortality accounts for a further €59bn