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17/12/2015

“Alcohol: Why is it a big thing”? - 17-11-2015

European Parliament, 17th November 2015, Brussels, Belgium

- Event hosted by Jytte Guteland MEP and Cristian Busoi MEP (absent)
- Time: 12.00 - 14:00
- Venue: European Parliament, Brussels
- Room: Paul Henri Spaak (P7C50)

Аn Alcohol Policy event was held at the European Parliament on November 17th as part of the 3rd Awareness Week on Alcohol-Related Harm. The meeting, hosted by MEP Jytte Guteland (S&D), gathered a number of distinguished speakers, including Deputy Director General Martin Seychell from the European Commission Directorate General Health and Food Safety, Health Attaché Tairi Täht (Ministry of Social Affairs, Estonia) as well as representatives from the OECD and the European Brain Council (EBC).

Welcome and introduction

Ms. Jytte Guteland MEP

In her opening comments, Ms. Guteland emphasised the need for immediate decisive actions by the European Commission to address alcohol-related harm in Europe. By recalling data on the high level of alcohol consumption in Europe, the related physiological and emotional damage and its implications for social and economic stability, Ms. Guteland affirmed that alcohol should be considered “a big thing” which requires actions to prevent future costs and losses. With concern that the European Commission has failed to prioritise action, Ms Guteland encouraged proactive engagement by EU institutions and stakeholders to invest in health by addressing harmful alcohol consumption.

Keynote speech

Deputy Director General Martin Seychelles, European Commission Directorate General Health and Food Safety

In support of the evidence behind the detrimental impact of harmful alcohol consumption, Mr. Seychell added that the problem is further exacerbated by divergence across regions, countries and populations in terms of consumption patterns and cultural perceptions. Stressing on the need for preventive measures, he outlined that the way to address the issue effectively and cost-efficiently is by endorsing a holistic strategy on chronic diseases. This approach, he explained, will try to understand the underlying reasons for chronic diseases by identifying the commonalities between risk factors, including alcohol. He further outlined that although there is room for improvement, the European Commission has been active in monitoring consumption levels, increasing literacy, identifying best-practices, supporting existing working mechanisms (Joint Action on Reducing Alcohol Related Harm) and adapting efforts to country-specific policies through EU-funded projects.

In response to the requests from the audience for further specific details on a potential EU strategy for chronic diseases, Mr. Seychell suggested that a dialogue is expected to be initiated at the beginning of 2016 but refused to provide a clear timeline for following actions. He made clear that all negotiations will be conducted using the existing infrastructure for discussions with the EU Member States. He further emphasized that all actions need to be taken in light of the principles of subsidiarity and economic sustainability, implying that the Commission will only have a supportive role in building effective mechanisms for collecting and assessment of data, providing access to evidence, ensuring that there is a link between policy and results and providing the financial resources for best practices exchange. He added that one of the primary tasks of the Commission is to identify and remove the obstacles and existing silos within the Commission by involving the Commissioners in decision-making.

“On the changes of Alcohol Act and Advertising Act in Estonia”
Health attaché Tairi Täht, Ministry of Social Affairs, Estonia

Mr. Bronis Ropė MEP also contributed to the discussion, suggesting that for countries like Lithuania, harmful alcohol consumption has become an issue that raises concerns over national security. For this reason, MEP Ropė added, the Lithuanian government has taken decisive measures to address the problem by imposing sales and marketing limitations (e.g. prohibition to sell alcoholic beverages in gas stations) as well as by raising public awareness through various campaigns.

Ms. Täht presented the efforts of the Estonian government to address the issue of harmful alcohol consumption by adopting in 2014 an Alcohol Strategy (the so-called “Green Paper”). This ambitious step, Ms. Täht explained, involves a number of actions in terms of changing treatment guidelines as well as policies on labelling, taxation and literacy. It also includes a proposal for changes in the current legislative framework to include regulations on advertising as well as on limiting the availability and access to alcoholic beverages. However, Ms. Täht underlined the need for cooperation at the EU level to ensure that the individual efforts of some countries should not be undermined by the lack of similar policies on alcohol in neighbouring countries.

“The economics of alcohol policy”

Michele Cecchini, Health Division, OECD

Mr. Michelle Cecchini provided an insight on the latest scientific research conducted by the OECD, which provides new evidence on the shift of consumption patterns in terms of age, sex and social status. He pointed to the distressing fact that although overall consumption in Europe is decreasing, there is a rise of binge drinking episodes among youths and also increased consumption among undereducated men and highly educated women. Mr. Cecchini highlighted that brief interventions in price and regulations policies are likely to provide large health gains and cost-saving results.

“Alcohol and the Brain”

Professor Geert Dom, European Brain Council

Further evidence on the impact of alcohol consumption was provided by Prof. Dom who pointed to the increased probability for brain disorders and mental conditions in people who engage in harmful alcohol consumption. Furthermore, Prof. Dom provided statistics to demonstrate the linear impact of alcohol consumption (increases with continuous consumption over time). Indicating that alcohol is a risk factor for more than 60 medical diseases, including cancer, Prof. Dom acknowledged that alcohol constitutes a significant public health and R&D challenge due to treatment gaps and secondary prevention-related issues. He therefore encouraged further investment in research to study the effects of alcohol on brain function and health in general.

Prof. Dom agreed with concerns raised over the ambiguous results of research in alcohol consumption, which may suggest the contrary, namely, that moderate consumption is associated with protective rather than detrimental impact. However, he affirmed the need for further investment in research to be able to diminish these ambiguities in order to ensure positive health outcomes.

Conclusions

The meeting, which gathered policy-makers, public health organizations and patient advocates, reinforced the notion that harmful alcohol consumption has negative impact on public health, economic sustainability and social wellbeing. However, despite the overall consensus over the need for greater policy action, there is a lot to be done to address the issue in a systematic and decisive manner to ensure clear actions and distribution of responsibilities both at the EU and the national level.