EU should not stifle debate on alcohol

Posted by Blogactiv Team on 14/11/13

Guest post by Matthew Walsh, Director of Corporate Affairs at Media Intelligence Partners.

It is looking increasingly likely that the European Union will soon be looking into updating their Alcohol Strategy. Regrettably, cynical members of the NGO lobby appear to be preparing for the debate by trying to silence industry figures from participating in future discussions.

The 2006 EU Alcohol Strategy set out to address alcohol consumption and the harm it can cause. The EU Alcohol Strategy set up an EU Alcohol and Health Forum, made up of NGOs, charities, trade bodies and industry representatives. In order to be a member of the Forum, participants had to pledge to step up actions to reduce alcohol related harm. Areas of focus included curbing under-age drinking, education on harmful drinking patterns and promotion of responsible commercial communication.

Regrettably, a number of NGOs – Active-Sobriety, Friendship and Peace (Active), IOGT-NTO, European Youth forum and UNF – the Swedish youth temperance association, have recently quit the Forum.

It turns out that three of these NGOs are very closely associated – Active is a member of the European Youth Forum and has co-operation with IOGT-NTO. This suggests that there the level of dissatisfaction with the Forum is actually limited to a small number of disgruntled members.

Simon Ollson, President of Active has called for the European Commission to “change the structure of the forum” to ban commercial interests from any future EU discussion on alcohol. Mr Ollson even went as far as to say “the alcohol industry has no place in the policymaking of health issues”.

This is a rather worrying position portrayed by an NGO – to exclude anyone they disagree with from debate.

It becomes more apparent as to why these organisations are seeking to ban the industry voice when looking at their policy. Active do not have policy, instead they have an exhaustive list of “demands”, including the rather open ended “direct and indirect alcohol marketing should be prohibited all over Europe”.

The reference to “indirect” marketing is relatively open ended – this could refer to the “indirect” alcohol marketing in films and television programmes for example? What would this mean for the Queen Vic and The Rovers return?

The “demands” continue: “Alcoholic beverages should be clearly marked with content labels and labels warning the consumers about the risks connected with alcohol consumption. The warning text should cover at least 40% of the label.” Health warning labels are a contentious and extremely complex issue.

If you are to implement health warning labels of 40% on alcoholic products throughout the EU it raises serious legal implications for intellectual property, not to mention the potential World Trade Organisation obligation breaches such a proposal would present. Before we even begin to address the possible implication of the implementation of 40% health warning labels, the more pressing question is whether health warning labels actually work.

Awareness of the risks associated with alcohol consumption are already considerably high throughout the EU and therefore, the major issue is not whether HWLs make people aware but more so, whether HWLs aid in successfully changing alcohol consumption behaviour. At present, there is very little evidence to support this.

Many of the policies advocated by Active are extreme in content and relatively light on evidence. Furthermore, they are expensive and when expense is compared to overall success in reducing risky behaviour, such policies are not cost effective.

The most successful method to effectively change risky alcohol consumption is through media communications. There have been a range of informative media campaigns in the UK for example that have educated the public, on the dangers of alcohol including, the risks of drinking during pregnancy, binge drinking and (particularly during the Christmas period) drink driving.

Drinkaware, a UK charity, launched a “why let good times go bad” to tackle social acceptability of drunkenness and as a result, 70% of the target audience said they were more likely to change their drinking habits because of the campaign. The public will not listen if dictated to about alcohol issues – they welcome education.

We need sensible debate from all sides of the argument. To try to exclude key stakeholders from a future EU alcohol strategy is a savage attack on a perfectly legitimate, democratic notion.

The European Commission must not be influenced by these devious attempts by a minority of NGOs to stifle debate on such an important issue.

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