Feature Alcohol and Public Health

Europe under the influence

BMJ 2014; 348 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.g1166 (Published 10 February 2014) Cite this as: BMJ 2014;348:g1166
  1. Jonathan Gornall, freelance journalist
  1. 1Colchester, Essex, UK
  1. jgornall{at}mac.com

Carrying on from his investigation into the lobbying activities of the alcohol industry in the UK, Jonathan Gornall finds that the industry is using similar tactics to influence Europe’s alcohol policy

The success of the drinks industry in keeping UK regulation at bay1 is overshadowed by the scale of its impact in Europe, a region in which the overall consumption of alcohol is more than twice the world’s average and where, according to the latest estimate, nearly 138 000 people died prematurely of alcohol attributable causes in 2004 alone.2 Put another way, among those aged 15-64, the deaths of one in seven men and one in 13 women are caused by alcohol.

Despite these shocking statistics, the European Commission has offered no resistance to the alcohol industry. Worse, under the auspices of its 2007 alcohol strategy it has instead collaborated with industry’s preference for self regulation, building it a voluntary platform from which it can shout loudly about corporate responsibility and voluntary commitments, concepts that have proved largely ineffective in preventing the health harms caused by its products.

By no coincidence, in the five years from 2006 to 2010 the areas of alcohol policy that grew stronger in Europe were education and community action—industry favourites. At the same time, controls on pricing and advertising grew weaker,2 which according to an analysis by the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health was “simply the wrong way round, given the evidence on what might have made a difference to reducing the harm done by alcohol.”3

Now, as the European Commission consults on a short term “action plan” to replace the alcohol strategy, the industry is on the warpath again—and all the signs are that it will, once again, get its way.

A fresh start?

At the end of October 2012, representatives from the health departments of 26 European states gathered in Brussels for a special meeting of the Committee on National Alcohol Policy and Action to discuss the future of the European alcohol strategy, which expired later that year. The committee had been founded in 2007 as one of two pillars of the strategy. The other was the Alcohol and Health Forum, under which the industry makes voluntary commitments, similar to the UK’s responsibility deal.

At least three nation members of the committee had come to the October meeting with grave reservations about what the strategy had achieved—and ideas as to how any successor could better reduce alcohol related harm.

After five years of a pan-European alcohol strategy dependent on the self regulation of industry, a joint paper presented to the committee by the health departments of Britain, Sweden, and Ireland made radical reading. It called for a renewed EU alcohol strategy that would “better support member states’ alcohol policy objectives.” Crucially, it stressed, the most effective policies were “population level policy instruments such as taxation [and] minimum unit price [which] has a greater impact on heavy consumers.”4

This was anathema to the alcohol industry, as email correspondence obtained by the BMJ shows. Somehow the paper ended up in the hands of Gavin Hewitt, the chief executive of the Scotch Whisky Association and president of the European industry organisation SpiritsEurope, a major player on the Brussels lobbying scene. In a hectoring email sent to several British government departments, Hewitt, whose previous roles include director for Europe and trade at the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills and British ambassador to Belgium, says his association is “disappointed to learn” that the Department of Health has circulated the paper “calling for a radical revision of the EU alcohol strategy.”

To Hewitt’s obvious horror, the paper “seeks support for . . . a range of whole population measures to tackle alcohol misuse,” including “minimum pricing [and] restrictions on advertising and availability.”

Minimum pricing, he insists, “has no place in policy options for the UK government in addressing alcohol harm.” Furthermore, he hopes that at the forthcoming meeting the UK government “will continue vigorously to promote a co-regulatory/self-regulatory approach and extol the benefits of innovative solutions, such as the Responsibility Deal, as effective alternative approaches to regulation in tackling alcohol-related harm.”

Despite Hewitt’s intervention, minutes of the committee’s meeting show that all member states supported the ambition, expressed in the circulated joint paper, that whatever followed the alcohol strategy should be an altogether tougher proposition, focused on EU action on “cross-border trade and advertising, taxation and minimum pricing.” The commitments made by industry under the Alcohol and Health Forum required “clearer focus on responsible business practices” and better evaluation of outcomes.5

The alcohol strategy had been born in October 2006, five long years after the Council of the European Union had first asked the commission to put forward proposals for reducing alcohol related harm.6 When it finally arrived, via a lengthy consultation process marked by an industry lobbying campaign described as “unprecedented in its intensity,” it had been stripped of any regulatory teeth.7 8

It was, noted the authors of one assessment, “a disappointingly long way from being what the doctor ordered,” and it was “easy to put the blame for this at the door of the alcohol industry.” The important lesson for the commission to learn was “how to deal with the tactics of a powerful and aggressive alcohol industry.”9

Mandatory labels “lobbied off the table”

When the original motion in support of the alcohol strategy was put before MEPs by the health committee in July 2007, it contained a tough clause which, if passed, could have meant mandatory health warnings on all alcoholic drinks across the EU. That same year, France introduced a regulation that all alcoholic beverages had to carry a pictogram warning pregnant women not to drink, but elsewhere in Europe this warning remains voluntary and far from widespread. “Health warnings on alcohol may require European harmonisation similar to health warnings on tobacco,” parliament noted. It asked the commission “to publish before 1 January 2010 either a legislative proposal to introduce health warnings on alcoholic beverages, or a communication to explain why, in contrast to health warnings on tobacco, the introduction or harmonisation of health warnings on alcohol is not necessary.”10

This would have been bad news for an industry that fears any regulation as the thin end of a wedge—and it was the only clause that was substantially amended before the resolution was adopted by the European parliament two months later.

The final clause noted instead that “the existence of different national labelling requirements has clear implications for the EU internal market.” Gone was the proposal for legislation. In its place, the resolution urged the commission “to initiate a comparative study on impact and effectiveness of various information and communication means, including labelling and advertising, applied in member states with a view to reducing hazardous and harmful alcohol consumption.”11

Mandatory labelling, in other words, had been lobbied off the table, leaving public health organisations aghast.

The first draft of the strategy, commented Eurocare, the European Alcohol Policy Alliance, “would have had an impact in reducing the harm done by alcohol”. But “the alcohol industry and other parts of the commission have ensured that the strategy reflects the undue influence of the alcohol industry, which has been responsible for one of the most intensive lobbying campaigns ever known in regard to public health policy.”12

Caroline Lucas was among the MEPs who at the time condemned this “U turn.” “While the alcohol industry may simply want to ignore the devastating consequences caused by the abuse of alcohol,” said Lucas, the Green party member for the South East region from 1999 to 2010, “EU lawmakers should treat this problem with the seriousness it warrants.”13

Renewed action

Six years on, the industry is busy doing its best to ensure that the successor to the EU alcohol policy is also watered down. The new European action plan to reduce alcohol related harm, currently undergoing consultation, already bears the hallmarks of the same industry lobbying that blighted its predecessor.

“What they have proposed initially is to focus on young people and heavy drinking,” said Mariann Skar, secretary general of Eurocare. “These are easy goals, and we aren’t very happy about that. We want a broader population approach; we want them to focus on price, marketing, and availability.”

Eurocare delivered its comments on the draft plan to John Ryan, the commission’s acting director of public health, last week. Whether they are taken on board remains to be seen, but the industry is also having its say and, as emails seen by the BMJ show, it is doing its best to make sure its voice is heard.

In June last year MEPs were contacted by Gauthier Bas, a senior consultant at Cabinet DN, a consultancy that offers “public affairs and media services to clients seeking to influence the European Union.” Bas was hoping to influence MEPs on behalf of the Brewers of Europe, whose secretary general, Pierre-Olivier Bergeron, and senior adviser, Simon Spillane, “would be delighted to meet you in Brussels, at your convenience.”

Europe’s Brewers, he wrote, were “committed to promoting responsible beer consumption and [were] proud to be the leading committer under the EU Alcohol and Health Forum.” Now, they wanted to discuss “key challenges and opportunities for our sector that we believe are of interest to the European Parliament, particularly at a time when the EU Strategy to support Member States in reducing alcohol-related harm is being evaluated.”

Individual companies are also lobbying. In November MEPs were contacted by Sophie Jacobs, a Brussels based senior consultant with international public affairs consultancy Interel. Jacobs was working on behalf of brewers SABMiller and seeking to arrange meetings between individual MEPs and Gabor Garamszegi, the brewing company’s corporate affairs director.

“Discouraging irresponsible drinking,” she said, was one of SABMiller’s top priorities, as reflected in its involvement in the European Alcohol and Health Forum. “Mr Garamszegi would very much appreciate the opportunity to meet with you to introduce you to the company, its contribution to the UK and European economy and the work it is doing to tackle irresponsible drinking.”

Controlling the debate

Yet a series of industry emails from 2010, obtained by the BMJ, show that Garamszegi’s enthusiasm for discouraging irresponsible drinking did not extend to countenancing regulation. What they do show, however, is just how seriously the alcohol industry takes the business of controlling the public health debate.

In April 2010 the European Commission’s health directorate, DG Sanco, held a series of meetings with stakeholders, including industry and non-governmental organisations, to set the agenda for the EU’s third Open Forum on Alcohol Health, due to be held in Brussels on 19 November 2010.

Two months before, on 15 February, Ceri Thompson, team leader for alcohol and drugs at DG Sanco, responsible for the implementation of the EU alcohol strategy and the management of the Alcohol and Health Forum process, wrote to members of the forum group to distribute a draft programme for discussion.

At this stage, there were five topics on the table, including the social cost of alcohol and pricing policy. One of the recipients of the email was Eric Vaes, senior external adviser for drinks company Moët Hennessy, who forwarded it to 28 industry colleagues working for familiar brands and companies including Diageo, Chivas, Pernod-Ricard, and Bacardi.

“Needles [sic] to say,” he wrote, “Gabor [Garamszegi] and I will continue to strongly resist any policy driven agenda like proposed examples of Eurocare’s labeling, local pricing/marketing policies or some of the suggested examples under the social cost of alcohol.”

Ten days later, Vaes reported back to his network on a meeting with the health directorate, attended by himself, Garamszegi, someone from Spirits Europe, and representatives from Eurocare and the European Public Health Alliance.

With the support of Garamszegi, he wrote, “I managed to keep the focus on three key topics . . . consumer information and role of health professionals . . . the social cost of alcohol abuse [and] responsible selling and serving.” Pricing policy, he noted, “is so far suppressed.”

Next came the business of nominating industry panellists and moderators for the selected topics. “I do not,” wrote Vaes to Carole Brigaudeau, manager of the industry’s European Forum for Responsible Drinking (which in 2012 merged with the European Spirits Organisation to form SpiritsEurope), “wish DG Sanco to receive too many candidates from NGOs [non-governmental organisations] . . . to occupy roles of chairs or scene setters.”

He suggested some names—including Professor Philippe De Witte of the European Foundation for Alcohol Research, whom he described as “industry friendly.” Contacted by the BMJ, De Witte said he had given a talk at the forum but had no idea “why Mr Vaes described me as industry friendly.” Another option, replied Brigaudeau, would be Chris Sorek, chief executive of the industry funded Drinkaware Trust in the UK.

Either way, wrote Vaes, the industry’s “final objective” at the open forum should be that “we manage this time to better ‘occupy the floor’ in an intelligent and action/commitment driven way by avoiding ... NGO’s policy driven subjects and ‘intervenants.’”

For Evelyn Gillan, the chief executive of the charity Alcohol Focus Scotland, “the exchanges show what a sham the industry’s supposed commitment to partnership working is. They are interested in partnership only in order to steer discussion away from evidence based policies that will be effective in reducing alcohol consumption towards those policies that the evidence suggests will be ineffective—thus protecting their business interests.”

In November 2013, Brussels based lobbying watchdog Corporate Observatory Europe and more than 200 other groups published a report highlighting that, despite a series of scandals and pledges by the commission’s secretariat-general to act, its advisory expert groups were still “consistently dominated by big business interests, meaning the voices of other stakeholders . . . are largely unrepresented and unheard.”

“Should speculators,” it asked, “be given privileged access to dominate advice on financial regulation, beverage companies on alcohol policy, or fossil fuel companies on climate change? Worryingly for democracy, the European Commission is doing just that, despite promising it would not.”14

This was a thinly veiled reference to industry membership of the European Alcohol and Health Forum, which the commission classifies as an expert group. The group is composed of public health members and a comparable number of industry representatives, including Diageo, Brewers of Europe, and SpiritsEurope.

Spillane, senior adviser on beer and society for Brewers of Europe, rejects any suggestion that the forum is little more than an opportunity for the industry to avoid regulatory interference by committing to actions that have little real effect on the harms caused by alcohol.

“To say the forum has done that would be ridiculous because the alcohol strategy didn’t propose regulation,” he says. “The aim of the forum was not to discuss policy, it was to motivate voluntary actions, and in our opinion it has done that.”

As “the main contributor” to the forum—Brewers’ members are behind 100 of the 250 commitments to date—“I feel very comfortable saying, ‘yes, it has had a positive impact.’ And if you speak to all the partners on all these programmes who have received support from the brewing sector at a local level, they will also say it has had an impact.”

In 2012, however, an independent review of how the forum’s commitments were monitored found “significant variations in the quality of monitoring.” While “some members appear to struggle with monitoring their commitments,” others even “had difficulty in being able to clearly communicate how they relate to the aims of the Forum or what they have produced in terms of outputs.”15

According to an assessment of the effectiveness of the alcohol strategy, commissioned in the same year by DG Sanco, there had been “considerable achievements” since it was set up in 2006. The Committee on National Alcohol Policy and Action had “contributed to building consensus across member states and provided impetus for the development of national policies.” And the European Alcohol and Health Forum had “stimulated concrete stakeholder-driven action to address alcohol-related harms through ‘commitments to action.’”16

However, despite “progress” across the five priority themes of the strategy—protecting children, reducing road injuries and deaths, preventing harm among adults, raising awareness of the impact of harmful drinking, and developing a common evidence base—the report’s conclusion suggested that the system of industry commitments was having insufficient effect: “The aims of the alcohol strategy have not yet been fully reached and alcohol-related harm remains a concern in all Member States.”16

Demonstrating corporate responsibility is just one tool that the alcohol industry uses to keep regulation at arm’s length in Europe. As in England, where the BMJ has already shown the industry has many supporters in parliament and Westminster,1 the industry has many influential friends in Brussels.

The beer club

Many of them are members of the European Parliament Beer Club, which, like the UK parliament’s all party beer group, is one of the most popular special interest groups for MEPs.

Some 100 members of parliament endorse its mission to “support the positive role of beer in Europe’s culture [and] foster a greater understanding of the brewing sector within the European institutions, and particularly the European parliament.” Membership gives MEPs the chance “to savour a variety of Europe’s finest crafted beers—responsibly” and, naturally, the club “encourages the brewing sector to pursue its work as a responsible stakeholder.”17

The nine British MEPs who are members (four Conservatives, three UKIP, and two Labour) include Emma McClarkin, the Conservative MEP for the East Midlands, who is a vice-president of the beer club.

An assistant to McClarkin said she was too busy to take part in a telephone interview to discuss the competing interests of the public health community and those, such as the members of the beer club, concerned with protecting the economic contribution of the alcohol industry in Europe from over-restrictive legislation.

She was, however, “happy to let you know that she supports the drinks industry as an important contributor to the UK economy. She supports its message of moderation and is aware of its own activities to help address problem drinking.”

In November 2013, McClarkin was one of five panellists who discussed “how we can best grow the European spirits sector and in the process how we can help the European economy” at the annual spirits summit staged at the Residence Palace in Brussels by SpiritsEurope. In reality, the “summit” is little more than a brief prelude to SpiritsEurope’s “fabulous Annual Cocktail [party], a unique opportunity to discover and taste our products from all over Europe, the pride of the spirits sector,” to which many MEPs are invited.

McClarkin’s support for the industry goes further than merely turning up at cocktail parties. On 17 September 2013, she hosted the launch of a joint report by industry lobby groups Hospitality Europe and Brewers of Europe, extolling the economic contribution of the hospitality sector across 31 countries.

It was, wrote Demetrio Carceller, president of Brewers of Europe, in his foreword to the report, “important that decision-makers recognise the major contribution made by the European hospitality sector to the EU economy and society and that its good health is essential for EU job creation and growth.”18

McClarkin, for one, had no argument with that.

“Beer is more than just a refreshing drink,” she said at the launch of the report at a beer club dinner in the European parliament. “At a time of stagnating economic growth and spiralling youth unemployment . . . we need to be sure that policies are helping hospitality and closely linked sectors such as beer, not hindering them.”

There are, says Olivier Hoedeman from Corporate Europe Observatory, “many MEPs, especially in the centre right groups, who have it as their mission to defend industry interests, often linked to industries from their regions. Industries know who these people are and are eager to get them into rapporteur roles.”

Rapporteurs are MEPs put in charge of ushering proposed legislation through committees and into law, and their appointment, says Hoedeman, is always “a political game between the political groups—very complicated horse trading. ‘If you get tobacco, I get something else.’”

The largest and most influential political group in Europe is the centre right European People’s Party, and in July 2011 one of its members was the rapporteur responsible for the Food Information Regulation Directive, which has imposed mandatory health labelling requirements on food products across Europe with the exception of alcoholic beverages.19

“Originally alcohol was included [by the Commission] in the scope of the food labelling regulations,” said British Labour MEP Glenis Willmott, who led on the issue for the socialists and democrats. “I wanted to see calories labelled on the front of the label and the full nutritional breakdown on the back. But the various alcohol industries lobbied the parliament so hard they managed to get themselves fully exempted from the legislation.”

The rapporteur for the directive was Renate Sommer, the conservative Christian Democrat MEP for North Rhine-Westphalia. There is no suggestion that the alcohol industry played any part in her appointment as rapporteur. However, like McClarkin, she is a vice-president of the parliamentary beer club.

Sommer told the BMJ that her membership of the beer club had “by no means influenced me in my role as rapporteur.” In fact, “the brewers—in contrary to the wine and spirits producers—had nothing against nutrition labelling of their products.”

Yet they did lobby against the directive. “We were by no means the people on the front line in opposing this,” said Spillane of Brewers of Europe. “However, we felt the importance of there being a level playing field [between all alcohol products] and we informed MEPs of this. I wouldn’t describe it as an aggressive lobbying campaign by any stretch of the imagination.”

Sommer says she proposed that all mixtures of alcoholic with non-alcoholic beverages should be covered by the directive, but “commission and council just wanted mixtures with spirits named as alcopops.” This “caused legal problems,” and alcohol was excluded from the regulations.

Besides, she added, “I always underlined that alcoholic beverages are not food for frequent consumption but special products that should be treated in a separate labelling regulation.”

More recently, Sommer has made no secret of her belief that the alcohol industry should not be subjected to more regulation.

In February 2012, at an event hosted by the beer club, she launched the brewing industry’s European Beer Pledge, a collection of commitments “to increase consumer information, enforce responsible advertising and conduct new awareness campaigns reaching out to young adults, drivers, and pregnant women.” The EU, said Sommer, “should have a supportive function.”

Alongside her was Despina Spanou, principal adviser to DG Sanco and chair of the alcohol and health forum, who praised the commitments made by the beer industry as “impressive.” Sometimes, she said, “through voluntary approaches you can achieve a lot and faster than if you went the legislative route.”

As they spoke, the two women were flanked by Rutger Goethart, public affairs manager at Heineken, and Bergeron, secretary general of Brewers of Europe.

A year later, Sommer wrote the foreword to the first annual report on the progress of the beer pledge. She was “impressed” by the brewers’ “commitment not just to words, but to action! . . . We already have a huge range of laws in place on alcoholic beverages, including beer, at Member State level. We do not need new legislation to tackle alcohol-related harm.”20

Sommer told the BMJ she did not see her vice-presidency of the beer club as inconsistent with her role on parliament’s environment, public health and food safety committee, nor her commitment to the wellbeing of the brewing sector as at odds with her responsibilities towards the health of Europe’s citizens.

“My membership of the beer club is public, no secret, and honorary,” she said. “There is no conflict of interests.” Beer, she added, “is a traditional product that is deeply rooted in our European culture. The brewing sector in Germany is proud of its purity law and [provides] important jobs, also in my home region. As long as beer is being consumed responsibly it is a healthy product that contains vitamins, minerals, enzymes, and even anti-inflammatory ingredients.”

She said she supported the European countries that had challenged Scotland’s attempt to introduce minimum pricing, partly because of the trade threat it would pose to the internal harmonised market, but also because the measure would discriminate “against poorer citizens” and “strengthen illicit trade of alcohol.”

Asked if she considered economic growth and jobs to be more important than lives, she dismissed the question as “more than impertinent and even more tendentious than the others.”

Sommer provided a lobby list of the individuals and organisations she met as rapporteur of the labelling legislation—a cross section of stakeholders from NGOs, consumer groups, and members of national parliaments to supermarkets, alcohol firms, and food companies.

But, as in the UK, finding out which companies have spoken to which MEPs, and what passed between them, is generally not so easy. Superficially, at least, Brussels does seem more transparent when it comes to the activities of lobbyists. But the downfall of the European Parliament’s transparency register, says Hoedeman, is that it is voluntary and exposed to little real scrutiny by parliament.

“If the EU had a properly functioning transparency register, it would be updated more frequently than once a year and would be mandatory and reliable,” he says. “At best we have only educated guesses as to how much is being invested. We should be able to see on what issue [companies] are trying to lobby, and with that level of detail it would be really beneficial for public debate about the role of lobbying in decision making because you can see what’s important to the industry.”

The register lists a dozen alcohol companies or representative organisations with lobbying operations in Brussels, including Diageo, Carlsberg, AB InBev, Brewers of Europe, the Scotch Whisky Association, and SpiritsEurope. Only two—AB InBev and Spirits Europe—admit to spending more than €1m (£820 000; $1.4m) on their lobbying, with all 12 claiming a total expenditure of just €4.5m in one year.

With some 50 people registered as lobbyists, that works out at about €90 000 per head—a figure that seems remarkably low given the ostensible cost of lobbying in expensive Brussels, which supposedly takes into account office space, travel, and entertaining.

That list, incidentally, excludes public relations companies such as Bell Pottinger, which says it has 19 operatives in Brussels, representing a wide range of companies, and yet quantifies its overheads at just €250 000. Among its most lucrative clients is the brewer SABMiller.21

There are, according to Hoedeman, many clear cases of “under-reporting among some of the key lobby players who had reported unrealistically low expenses. They get away with this because the commission chooses to take a laissez-faire approach. As long as they are on the register, it doesn’t matter what they report.”

For now, only those on the receiving end of it in the European Commission and parliament will know the lengths to which the industry is currently going to shape the next phase of Europe’s efforts to reduce the harm caused by alcohol.

Disillusion

When the now expired alcohol strategy was created in 2006, the commission was clear on its mandate and the case for action: alcohol was the cause of 7.4% of all ill health and early death in the EU—even more among those aged 15 to 29—and at least 10 000 people died on Europe’s roads each year in alcohol related incidents.22

It remains to see whether the Alcohol and Health Forum will retain its public health members, or even survive, if Europe’s new action plan to reduce alcohol related harm proves to be as toothless as its predecessor. Some are already so discouraged that they aren’t waiting to find out. Shortly after the new plan was announced, some members, including Active, a European youth umbrella organisation representing 30 organisations in 24 countries, quit the Alcohol and Health Forum, “disillusioned with [its] ability to provide effective and efficient changes to reduce alcohol related harm,” and called for “stronger regulations, abandoning of the self-regulation policy and exclusion of industrial interests” from the policy making process.23

Robert Madelin, the former British civil servant who as director general for DG Sanco set up the forum back in 2007, believes it served its purpose at a time when political and economic realities meant “we clearly weren’t going to be prohibiting anything.”

“The goal was to see whether we could take the issues around alcohol related harm—proper controls on advertising, and pricing and so on—and expose them to structured debate and analysis between the interested parties and reduce alcohol harm in a way that the political market in Baroso One Europe would bear.”

Whether the goal had been achieved was “not really for me to say,” said Madelin, who in 2010 left the health portfolio to become director general for communications networks, content, and technology.

“I understand, although I haven’t followed the evaluations in great detail, that the conclusion of the different parties has been yes, it’s succeeded in its aims and should continue. In terms of public intervention efficiency it definitely succeeded because we got more man hours of constructive attention from the producer and retail and advertising industries than we would have done without a structured dialogue.”

The forum’s strength, he believed, was “objective scrutiny . . . you make commitments, you have to report on them, and the reporting is public and validated—so you can exaggerate, but you can’t say black is white.”

That analysis surprised Nick Sheron, head of clinical hepatology at the University of Southampton, who attends the forum as a representative of the Royal College of Physicians and who last July quit as cochair of the UK Responsibility Deal Alcohol Network when the government reneged on its commitment to minimum pricing.

“One must presume that for commitments made by industry at the forum to have succeeded, they must in some demonstrable way have reduced alcohol related harm in a concrete sense,” he said. “I am not aware of any evidence that any of the actions by industry have done so. Perhaps Robert [Madelin] has access to information that we have not seen.”

Last week, board members of Eurocare travelled to Luxembourg to meet John Ryan, the commission’s director of public health, to press their case for amendments to the new interim action plan to reduce alcohol related harm. At the top of their shopping list was a call for a longer term strategy to be put in place within two years.

As it stood, they said, the plan was a watered down version of the original alcohol strategy. Michel Craplet, a former chair of Eurocare, writing last week in the EU’s Parliament magazine, declared that the plan failed to “stand on the scientific ground built over the last decades” and was “not the way to progress in the field of alcohol policy and reducing alcohol harm.”24

Likewise, the Eurocare delegation expressed disappointment that the document echoed industry terminology by referring to “heavy” drinking, rather than the qualitative terms of harmful or hazardous drinking, and called for a whole population approach rather than the targeting of subgroups, which is preferred by industry but dismissed by public health experts as much less effective in reducing overall harm. It also called for the plan, and any long term successor strategy, to be equipped with teeth—namely, pricing measures and legislation on alcohol advertising.

“It is essential that we continue to move forward in tackling the burden of alcohol harm in Europe,” said Katherine Brown, director of the Institute of Alcohol Studies, who was part of the Eurocare delegation. “We can’t afford to pause or delay activity in this vital area, and we certainly can’t afford for drinks industry interests to obstruct public health goals.”

The process of developing the current action plan, she said, had “shown the high level of support from member states and the public health community for a renewed EU alcohol strategy. Following the election of its new president, the commission must realise its commitment to keep the renewal of the strategy a priority action.”

Notes

Cite this as: BMJ 2014;348:g1166

Footnotes

References

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