New momentum for EU alcohol policy from 2020 and beyond

The new decade brings new challenges and opportunities for EU alcohol policy.

The formal interest in alcohol policy from the European Commission is seemingly continuing its steady decline, with a reduction in specific actions, work streams and meetings. Despite this bleak trend, alcohol policy is perhaps more impacted than ever by EU policy, with several ongoing files that could vastly improve EU countries’ ability to implement and enforce effective and ambitious alcohol policies. Below are some of the main trends to look out for in 2020 and beyond.

The rise of digital marketing

The topic of digital marketing of alcohol is slowly rising on the agenda in Brussels. Brushed to the side in the discussion on the Audio-visual Media Services Directive, the topic made a strong comeback in the Council Conclusions on alcohol policy in 2017.

In 2020, the process to reform the e-commerce Directive will start. The Directive could have far-reaching implications for EU Member State’s ability to enforce national alcohol marketing restrictions. Dating from the year 2000, national courts are increasingly struggling to interpret what the Directive means for modern digital marketing. This was barely existing as a phenomenon when the Directive first was adopted.

Cancer prevention on the agenda

One of the flagship promises of the European Commission for the new mandate is to develop a plan against cancer, called Europe’s Beating Cancer Plan. The formal process started on February 4, 2020 with a big launch in the European Parliament. So far there are mixed messages being sent by the Commission regarding the role of alcohol prevention in the plan: the formal documents clearly identify alcohol and alcohol consumption as a cause of cancer that needs to be tackled. At the same time, the Commissioner has tended to leave out alcohol in her speeches, raising worries of how strong the political commitment is to alcohol prevention.

EU: Consultation for “Beating Cancer Plan” Launched

The process nonetheless represents a key possibility for the alcohol control community. It’s high time policy and politics catch up with the robust scientific knowledge of alcohol as a key risk factor for cancer. The alcohol prevention and control community needs to raise its voice and make sure the Commission knows there is strong support to keep alcohol prevention as a key component of Europe’s Beating Cancer Plan.

The decline of legacy industries

Alcohol policy has for a long time been characterised by strong lobby pressure from vested interests of the alcohol industry. Some might even go as far as calling it attempts of corporate capture of complete policy sectors. In this field, the wine sector probably takes the price. With a firm grip over agricultural policies and actors around Europe, and close formalised relations with the powerful Agricultural Directorate in Brussels, the wine industry is used to getting its way. It suffices to look at the cushy subsidies from the EU-budget the wine industry has managed to ensure for itself, perhaps most remarkably over €250 million yearly to market their products outside the EU.

This has led to the rather incredulous situation where tax payers are subsidising some of the world’s largest Champagne producers to attend expensive food and (alcoholic) drink fairs and, if they so desire, bombard young people all over the world with ads for their products. When the financial soundness of this policy was questioned by the European Court of Auditors the response was that the Champagne industry had been suffering ever since the financial crisis and needed support. The situation has luckily led to more than just the alcohol prevention and control community starting to question the influence of the alcohol industry in policy making.

There are similar tendencies in many EU Member States where national alcohol industries are over-stretching their influence and experience backlash. The French public debacle surrounding Dry January comes to mind. Even though the wine industry managed to prevent state support for the campaign, their actions helped increase its visibility and weakened their credibility going into the new decade.

In spring, the European Parliament will have a chance to vote to end wine advertising and promotion subsidies. Luckily, the wine industry’s grip of the debate in Brussels seems weaker than it has been – all in all a welcome development for the public interest.

New Member States, new policies?

The fact that the EU now consists of 27 Member States might have a bigger impact on alcohol policy than many might first believe.

EU-enlargement from the 90’s and forward brought in Member States without strong entrenched alcohol industries and with a history of ambitious public health policies. This is becoming increasingly noticeable in Brussels, not least as officials from newer Member States enter the civil service, increasing knowledge and understanding for public health policies in the Commission.

The Brexit vote has also contributed to shifting the mood in Brussels on subsidiarity and the role of the EU. There is an increasing recognition that there is a desire in many Member States to adopt stronger public health policies than current EU-laws allow them to. The idea of complete harmonisation of alcohol policy, is increasingly being replaced by a recognition that Member States might have reasonable grounds to push ahead with more ambitious alcohol policies than their neighbours. Perhaps most importantly, there is increasing acceptance that the EU shouldn’t stand in the way of such ambitions.

The rise of national alcohol policy champions

Where EU-level alcohol policy has remained in stasis, interesting alcohol policy developments have taken place nationally. Public health minded governments have taken up the fight against the alcohol industry and brought in ground-breaking legislation. Member States already on the front-line have also managed to maintain their high levels of protection.

Lithuania has increased the purchasing age of alcohol to 20 and banned all advertising of alcohol; Ireland has voted for mandatory health warnings on alcohol bottles, informing about the connection between alcohol and fatal cancers; Scotland has introduced a minimum price of alcohol; Sweden and Finland have managed to maintain their alcohol retail monopolies despite strong attacks, and the model is getting increasing positive mentions in global discussions; and in Czechia a new alcohol policy champion has emerged, where the government is taking concrete steps to implement stronger alcohol policy measures – including alcohol tax increase and better regulation of alcohol marketing, in response to high societal costs. All these developments have pushed the boundaries of what was previously thought was possible in the EU context.

This strengthens the case for national alcohol policy and makes the road easier for other countries who want to follow. It will also undoubtably have an effect on EU-alcohol policy in the decade to come.

The fight is just starting

The positive signs in 2020 don’t mean the fight is over. National alcohol policy front-runners are reaching the boundaries of what’s possible under the current EU-level rules and regulations. The deeply entrenched economic interests will fight the positive developments tooth and nail. Last year the alcohol industry declared over €10 million in spending on lobbying the EU institutions. In Brussels, there’s already opposition being mounted against the European Commission’s flagship Europe’s Beating Cancer plan.

Public health organisations and social movements have done it before and can do it again, but it requires more national civil society organisations to also engage in EU-policy. It all starts with the simple realisation that EU policy affects national policy and that national alcohol policy and national political priorities can affect the EU.

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