The European Union (EU) is considering which health warning labels to put on alcohol products, following direction from the EU Beating Cancer Plan. The alcohol industry has launched an aggressive fight against labeling, using tactics of muddying the science and using their own corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiatives against this proven effective public health measure.

In February 2021, the European Commission launched “Europe’s Beating Cancer Plan”. The ambitious plan aims to reduce the cancer burden in the European Union affecting patients, their families and health systems. Movendi International welcomed this plan which focuses on prevention, including alcohol policy solutions in particular for the effort to beat cancer in the EU. Europe’s Beating Cancer Plan contains the target of – at least – a 10% reduction in per capita alcohol use by 2025, in line with Agenda 2030.

One of the measures included in the plan is health warning labeling on alcohol. Alcohol’s cancer link is irrefutable. Already in 1988, the World Health Organization (WHO) concluded that alcohol causes throat, liver, breast, and colon cancers. In the EU, in 2016 cancer was the most common cause of alcohol-related deaths at 29%.

Alcohol-related cancer deaths
In the EU, in 2016 cancer was the most common cause of alcohol-related deaths at 29%.

However, despite decades of growing scientific evidence, the general public remains largely unaware about the fact that alcohol causes cancer. One reason why is because Big Alcohol aggressively blocks this knowledge from reaching the public.

Evidence shows that the alcohol industry uses various strategies to cast doubt about the science on alcohol harms and to confuse the public. A recent scientific article by Petticrew and colleagues explored how alcohol industry CSR bodies use dark nudges and sludge, which utilize consumers’ cognitive biases to promote mixed messages about alcohol harms and to undermine scientific evidence.

Big Alcohol is now found to be deploying the same strategy against EU efforts to develop health warning labeling.

Several alcohol industry lobby front groups have banded together to launch their concentrated attack against health warning labeling in the EU. These groups include the German Brewers’ Federation (DBB), the German Wine Institute (DWI) and the German lobby front group of the liquor industry (BSI).

The Big Alcohol front group are funded by and represent global alcohol giants, such as Anheuser-Busch InBev, Bacardi, Beam Suntory, Brown-Forman, Campari, Diageo, Moët Hennessy, and Pernod Ricard.

The industry groups are attempting to muddy scientific evidence proving the efficacy of health warning labeling.

At the same time the industry is using their own CSR initiatives to take the focus away from labeling in the EU. Scientific research has found that alcohol industry CSR initiatives do nothing to prevent and reduce the harm caused by their own products. These initiatives serve to provide a commercial strategic advantage to the industry while posing as having a public health purpose.

Not even stopping there, the alcohol industry is blaming EU citizens for the harm their products and practices cause, in an attempt to escape responsibility. Research has found this is a common strategy of the alcohol industry to pass off the responsibility to people for reducing alcohol harm to avoid scrutiny of their harmful products (that are addictive, carcinogenic, terratogenic) and practices (aggressive marketing, lobbying, tax schemes, bribery, etc.).

Alcohol policy solutions in the EU need protection against Big Alcohol interference

Recently, a series of journal articles published in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs (Volume 81, Issue 2) found that three brightly colored, highly visible health warning labels with short messages reduced the sale of alcohol products by about 7%.

At the same time, knowledge and awareness of low-risk alcohol use guidelines and alcohol-related health risks including cancer increased.

Young people are specifically in support of implementing alcohol policy solutions in the EU. For example in Germany, at least 70% are in favor of a ban on advertising tobacco and alcohol, according to the study “Future Health 2020.”

The proposal for EU health warning labeling of alcohol needs to be submitted by 2023 after discussions with member states, interest groups and citizens.

In a recent podcast Movendi International discussed an editorial published by Paula O’Brien, Professor Robin Room and Professor Tim Stockwell in the addiction journal, on the reasons as to why alcohol policy solutions need to be protected from the alcohol industry. These include:

  1. The effectiveness of labels as a public health intervention depends upon their content and design, and it is highly unlikely that the alcohol industry would follow the evidence base on effective alcohol warning labels in a co‐regulatory alcohol labelling regime. 
  2. The alcohol industry has a poor track record of operating self‐regulatory arrangements for alcohol health warning labels. 
  3. It is illogic to entrust labelling regulation to an industry which publicly opposes effective health warning labelling. 

The alcohol industry produces, distributes, markets and profits from commercial alcohol. Therefore, if given the choice of public health and profit maximization the alcohol industry will always choose profit maximization and work against any policy solution that would threaten sales of their products.

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