The European Parliament on February 16, 2022, voted to water down alcohol policy elements in the “Strengthening Europe in the fight against cancer” report prepared by the European Parliament’s Special Committee on Beating Cancer (BECA).
Alcohol industry lobbying succeeded in making the alcohol policy elements of the BECA report the most controversial of the entire debate.
IOGT-NTO, Sweden’s largest social movement for alcohol prevention, tracked the debate and found that out of 70 Member of the European Parliament (MEP) speaking, 25 MEPs specifically talked about alcohol and many of those statements echoed Big Alcohol talking points and myths.
Alarmingly, most of the comments from party groups ID and EPP were repetitions of alcohol industry talking points.
The BECA report and its alcohol policy elements
The BECA report is an Own Initiative Report (INI-report) by the European Parliament. In an INI-report, a parliamentary committee, in this case BECA, proposes a report on an issue that it feels requires new EU legislation and attention. BECA reached a committee agreement in December 2021. Hence, the report was submitted to the plenary for voting by all Members of the European Parliament.
The report is advisory and does not carry legal weight. However, INI-reports are seen as an important precursor to EU legislative procedures being initiated. In this case, it could affect new regulations by the European Commission such as those due in 2023 on labelling of alcohol products and possible tax revisions to reduce alcohol consumption.
The original BECA report prior to amendments, established alcohol policy as a key element of cancer prevention in the European Union. However, the adopted report has watered down the alcohol policy elements in Europe’s efforts to beat cancer.
Watered down amendments of the BECA report
In summary, the amendments to the BECA report are as follows:
- Introduction of problematic, alcohol industry-friendly terminology: “harmful” use of alcohol.
- Language that alcohol causes cancer weakened to “harmful” use of alcohol causes cancer.
- Language which includes alcohol consumption as a cancer risk factor weakened to “harmful” use of alcohol as a risk factor.
- The language has been made convoluted. Even scientific facts about alcohol’s cancer risk, including low-dose alcohol consumption has been attacked.
- Regarding the WHO study that there is no safe level of alcohol consumption when it comes to cancer prevention the language was changed to “the safest level of alcohol consumption is none” when it comes to cancer prevention.
- The provision for including health warning labels on alcohol was weakened and made more convoluted.
- The language has changed the character completely, now stipulating labeling on “moderate” and “responsible” alcohol use, instead of a warning label regarding alcohol’s cancer risk.
An overview of the proposed amendments to water down the BECA report is presented in the table below. The complete list of amendments and details can be accessed here.
All amendments have been adopted by the European Parliament.
|Original BECA Report||Amendments|
recalls that alcohol consumption is a risk factor for many different cancers, such as oral cavity, pharynx, larynx, oesophagus, liver, colorectal and female breast cancerolorectal and female breast cancer;
underlines that harmful alcohol consumption is a risk factor for many different cancers, such as oral cavity, pharynx, larynx, oesophagus, liver, colorectal and female breast cancer;
recalls the study referred to by WHO which recognises that there is no safe level of alcohol consumption when it comes to cancer prevention, and stresses the need to take this into account when devising and implementing cancer prevention policy;
|Amendment 35 |
recalls the study referred to by WHO41 which recognises that the safest level of alcohol consumption is none when it comes to cancer prevention, and stresses the need to take this into account when devising and implementing cancer prevention policy;
supports the provision of better information to consumers by improving the labelling of alcohol beverages to include health warning labels and introducing the mandatory indication of the list of ingredients and nutritional information, and in addition, by introducing digital labelling;
supports the provision of better information to consumers by improving the labelling of alcohol beverages to include moderate and responsible drinking information and introducing the mandatory indication of the list of ingredients and nutritional information, and in addition, by introducing digital labelling;
Underlines that tobacco and alcohol consumption, poor nutrition, a high body mass index, a sedentary lifestyle and environmental pollution are risk factors common to other chronic diseases;
Underlines that tobacco and harmful alcohol consumption, poor nutrition, a high body mass index, a sedentary lifestyle and environmental pollution are risk factors common to other chronic diseases;
Sweden’s biggest newspaper about alcohol and other drug policy, Accent, spoke with Jytte Guteland, Swedish MEP (Social Democrats). Ms Guteland expressed mixed feelings about the BECA-report vote.
The BECA report in its entirety is very good and contains important recommendations regarding cancer prevention, including alcohol policy,” says MEP Jytte Guteland, according to Accent.
But some of the best and clearest formulations were voted down. The lack of commitment to listen to independent science concerns me.”Jytte Guteland, Member of the European Parliament, Sweden, Social Democrats
Ms Guteland empahsizes that it was positive that the BECA report makes the link between alcohol and cancer very clear, as per Accent.
The text contains a stronger focus on the causes of cancer. It contains a comprehensive approach to beating cancer that I think is important,” says MEP Guteland, as per Accent.
But I’m also disappointed.Jytte Guteland, Member of the European Parliament, Sweden, Social Democrats
Developing alcohol policy tools for cancer prevention
The European Commission has commenced work to develop a proposal for how the health warning label on alcohol products could look like.
But Emil Juslin, the European Policy Officer at IOGT-NTO and the head of IOGT-NTO’s Brussels office, is concerned that the European Parliament vote against science-based cancer prevention indicates that there is little support for public health alcohol policy measures. But MEP Guteland puts her trust in the EU’s Commissioner for Health, Stella Kyriakides, and her commitment to the EU’s Beating Cancer Plan to continue to develop alcohol health warning labels.
I hope she will want to test the issue in the parliament again,” says Ms Guteland.
In a debate about a concrete policy proposal, we would have the opportunity to have more debates before the vote. It is absurd that consumers in the EU know more about the content of juice than the content of wine.”Jytte Guteland, Member of the European Parliament, Sweden, Social Democrats
According to Mr Juslin, there is one positive aspect from the vote on the BECA-report: the alcohol industry had to mobilize aggressively and their unethical tactics are now out in the open, revealing their willingness to attack science and proven public health solutions to protect their private profits.
Especially the wine industry was very aggressive, interfering in the European Parliament process,” says Mr Juslin, as per Accent.
It has not happened often that Big Wine was so aggressive, explicit, and out in the open with their misinformation and myths. It also has become apparent that there is no other stakeholder that wanted to push through these changes to weaken cancer prevention.”Emil Juslin, European Policy Officer, IOGT-NTO
Jytte Guteland compares Big Alcohol’s efforts to the tobacco industry.
The industry has an enormous lobbying weaponry. They have entered a phase with increasing scrutiny, criticism and regulatory efforts and they respond by denying facts,” says MEP Guteland, as per Accent.
But this will not be possible to keep up much longer. Sooner or later, the awareness about alcohol and cancer will increase, until the link cannot be ignored any longer.”Jytte Guteland, Member of the European Parliament, Sweden, Social Democrats
MEP Guteland addressed alcohol industry interference in her statement during the plenary debate. She encouraged her colleagues to resists Big Wine’s lobby pressure and to stand up for integrity and public health.
It is deeply frustrating that the profits interest of the alcohol industry have been given preference over the public health interests, given all the facts about alcohol and cancer.”Jytte Guteland, Member of the European Parliament, Sweden, Social Democrats
The impact of weakening the alcohol policy elements in the report
Watering down and convoluting the language in the original BECA report by the European Parliament is not only contradictory to the existing scientific evidence that there is no safe level of alcohol consumption concerning cancer risk but also places private profits above the health and well-being of the people in Europe.
Alcohol causes 7 types of cancer:
- throat (pharynx),
- food pipe (esophagus),
- voice box (larynx),
- breast (in women),
- bowel (colon and rectum), and
- liver cancer.
For each of these cancers, the more alcohol a person consumes, the higher is their cancer risk. There is no safe amount of alcohol concerning cancer risk.
In the EU in 2016, about 80,000 people died of alcohol-attributable cancer, and about 1.9 million years of life were lost due to premature mortality or due to disability.
Alcohol use is one of the main known risk factors for cancer in the EU; in a recent comprehensive study on risk factors for cancer in France, only tobacco smoking was reported to cause higher cancer incidence. A recent study showed that alcohol use, including low-dose alcohol consumption, continues to cause a considerable cancer burden in Europe.
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. This has been evident when the European Commission lauched the Beating Cancer Plan.
The European Commission made alcohol policy a key element in beating cancer in the EU, when they launched the ambitious “Europe’s Beating Cancer Plan”. The implementation plan for Europe’s Beating Cancer Plan was published November, 2021.
As Movendi International reported previously, alcohol industry lobby front groups launched their attack against the Beating Cancer Plan,
- by muddying scientific evidence proving the efficacy of health warning labeling,
- using their own CSR initiatives to take the focus away from labeling in the EU, and
- passing on the responsibility to Euopean citizens by focusing on “moderation”, “respnsible use” to avoid scrutiny of their cancer-causing alcohol products and unethical practices including lobbying to weaken public health measure.
Weakening of the BECA report is part of the alcohol industry’s wider strategy to weaken alcohol policies in the EU. As evident from the watering down of the BECA report, several MEPs under the influence of the alcohol lobby are furthering industry interests at the cost of lives they are meant to protect.
The following MEPs gave pro-industry statements:
- Joëlle MÉLIN (ID, France),
- Pietro Fiocchi (ECR, Italy),
- Chiara GEMMA (NI, Italy),
- Stefania Zambelli (ID, Italy),
- Marco DREOSTO (ID, Italy),
- Margarita DE LA PISA CARRIÓN (ECR, Spain),
- Dolors MONTSERRAT (PPE, Spain),
- Simona BALDASSARRE (ID, Italy),
- Alessandro PANZA (ID, Italy),
- Herbert DORFMANN (PPE, Italy),
- Anne SANDER (PPE, France),
- Angelika NIEBLER (PPE, Germany).
Meanwhile several MEPs made strong statements to protect the BECA report and the health of European citizens, according to the monitoring work of IOGT-NTO.
Obviously, if we are trying to reduce consumption it’s a fight against economic interest. It’s been proved that any consumption of alcohol, even slight consumption of alcohol, is bad for you. Why should we not warn people about this?(…) I’ve got to be very clear, there should be no profit that goes ahead of health. (…) I call on my colleagues to not water it (the report) down,” said Manuela Ripa (Verts/ALE, Germany).Manuela Ripa (Verts/ALE, Germany)
We have the inclusion of no safe level of alcohol consumption in the report. However, I see that some colleagues still don’t recognize scientific studies or even reformulate them to align them with industry demands. The WHO clearly states that there is no safe level of alcohol consumption. Therefore, now stating that only harmful alcohol consumption is carcinogenic is misleading,” said Tilly Metz (Verts/ALE, Luxembourg).Tilly Metz (Verts/ALE, Luxembourg)
Alcohol too can be dangerous, it has been proven by science. If some parts of this house, if some lobby here want to change that, that’s a disgrace. Alcohol can be dangerous, as it says in the report. Amendments saying the opposite should be rejected. We must not dilute our water with wine,” said Tiemo WÖLKEN (S&D, Germany).Tiemo WÖLKEN (S&D, Germany)
Let me just mention alcohol that has been the subject of discussion and lobbying here. It is our task to say as members of the European Parliament to take those measures required to inform people. And in order to do so we need to follow science. I am amazed to see members of the house here promoting the winegrowing industry when we are actually discussing cancer prevention here today. That is what we should be talking about, we are not worried about wine growers here today,” said Maria ARENA (S&D, Belgium).Maria ARENA (S&D, Belgium)
It is important that the committee has based itself on the WHO:s research and has talked about the cancer causing properties of alcohol. It is time to turn our backs to the wine lobby and introduce labels on alcohol (…),” said Jytte GUTELAND (S&D, Sweden).Jytte GUTELAND (S&D, Sweden)
The BECA-report has no legislative power but can be best understood has an opinion of the European Parliament on the topic of cancer prevention and control. But according to Accent, Mr Juslin is concerned that the changes made by the EP vote will have negative consequences for the work with the EU’s Beating Cancer Plan.
It will make it more difficult to adopt evidence-based, ambitious alcohol policy measures for cancer prevention down the line. It is a bad precedent.”Emil Juslin, European Policy Officer, IOGT-NTO
Listen to Alcohol Issues Podcast Season 2 Episode 4
Big Alcohol’s Attack on the EU’s Beating Cancer Plan
The Globe and Mail: “EU lawmakers water down warnings on alcohol as cause of cancer“
El Pais: “The European Parliament refuses to link moderate alcohol consumption with cancer” [Translated From French]
The Drinks Business: “Breaking: Amendments made to alcohol and health recommendations in Europe“