Concern about the state of Europe’s flagship initiative to beat cancer
The World Health Organisation (WHO) sent a letter to Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) ahead of a crucial European Parliament vote. The state of play of Europe’s flagship Beating Cancer plan is concerning due to “scientifically inaccurate and worrisome” wording on alcohol use pushed by alcohol industry lobbyists.
Euractiv reports the WHO letter is addressed to lawmakers in the European Parliament’s Environment Committee (ENVI), which is to vote on a set of amendments to a report on non-communicable diseases (NCDs) on Tuesday, November 7.
In the summer, lawmakers on the European Parliament’s health sub-committee (SANT) started preparing the non-binding own-initiative report with recommendations to the European Commission, including on how to address all main risk factors causing Europe’s NCDs burden.
With 560 amendments filed by MEPs back in September, a smaller number of compromise amendments agreed upon by political groups and the rapporteur on the file, the Danish liberal Erik Paulsen, will constitute the backbone of the resolution and have the highest possibility of being approved in the end by ENVI, which is SANT’s ‘parent committee’.
While I recognise that this document is of an advisory nature, I am troubled by the trend witnessed in the finalisation of th[is] crucial report,” wrote Hans Kluge, Regional Director of WHO in Europe, in the letter to lawmakers, as per Euractiv reporting.Dr Hans Kluge, Regional Director, WHO Europe
People, communities, and civil society also alarmed about alcohol industry interference in public policy development
The SANT-committee is a Public Health subcommittee in the European Parliament (EP). This committee is working on a Non-Communicable Diseases Report (NCD) Report. The so called SANT Own Initiative Report on Non-Communicable Diseases is going to be voted on by the entire Committee on the Environment, Public Health and Food Safety (ENVI-committee) in the morning of November 7, 2023.
The report also addresses alcohol as major risk factor for NCDs in Europe.
Movendi International analysis shows that alcohol harm should have been addressed much better in the report from the beginning. For example, alcohol taxation as the single most cost-effective policy solution to prevent and reduce NCDs, such as cancer and heart diseases caused by alcohol, is not even included in the report.
But the language on alcohol that the report does contain is under heavy lobby attack by the alcohol industry. Sections concerning alcohol health warnings and addressing alcohol as a risk factor for NCDs have been watered down in the process of amending the report.
Leaked information revealed a lobby onslaught against the sections of the report addressing alcohol. Originally all the political groups in the EP decided on amendments – so called compromise amendments. For alcohol policy as tool to respond to Europe’s NCDs burden, the compromise amendments were solid, not perfect.
Despite reaching a unified decision between the political parties, the Rapporteur leading the process of this Own Initiative Report was pressured by the political group of the EPP to water down the language on alcohol. The Rapporteur bowed down to the pressure of the EPP, doing the dirty work for Big Alcohol.
The report now contains even worse language on alcohol and NCDs and the necessary policy solutions. These changes are the result of lobby efforts by the alcohol industry.
Movendi International members from around Europe are working together with partners, such as the European Public Health Association (EPHA), the European Alcohol Policy Alliance (Eurocare), the International Youth Health Organization (YHO), and others to inform their elected representatives – asking them to put people’s well-being before the private profit interests of the alcohol industry.
Concretely, Movendi International members from Sweden to Slovenia, from Germany to Slovakia, are asking Members of the European Parliament from their respective countries to protect the people’s health and well-being by voting to reject bloc vote 2 and by rejecting the compromise amendments under paragraph 3, paragraph 6, and paragraph 7.
Joint statement by WHO Europe and IARC to the European Parliament – raising awareness of the link between alcohol and cancer
The IARC is the specialized cancer agency of the World Health Organization (WHO). Its main mission is to conduct research to enable effective cancer prevention. The IARC monographs programme identifies and evaluates the potential of agents to cause cancer.
In 1988 alcoholic beverages were identified as a Group 1 carcinogen, with sufficient evidence that they cause cancer in humans. The Continuous Update Project of the World Cancer Research Fund and the American Institute for Cancer Research has also attributed the highest level of causal evidence to the link between the consumption of alcoholic beverages and the development of cancer.
Based on this convincing scientific evidence, the European Code Against Cancer, coordinated by IARC, provides a clear alcohol-related cancer prevention recommendation to European citizens. It states:
If you drink alcohol of any type, limit your intake. Not drinking alcohol is better for cancer prevention.”European Code Against Cancer
Cancers at the following sites have been causally linked to alcohol consumption:
- oral cavity,
- liver and
- female breast.
Overall, alcohol causes a substantial burden of cancer. Globally, more than 740,000 cancer cases in 2020 were estimated to be caused by alcohol use. This represented 4.1% of all new cancer cases. Almost a quarter of all cancers caused by drinking alcohol worldwide were in Europe.
There is a dose–response relationship between alcohol use and incidence of cancer: the higher the amount of alcohol consumed, the higher the risk of developing cancer. Current scientific evidence does not support the existence of a threshold at which the carcinogenic effects of alcohol start to manifest in the human body.
There is also clear evidence of an increased risk of cancer from light or moderate alcohol use. As such, no safe amount of alcohol consumption for cancers can be established.
Given that alcoholic beverages have been identified as carcinogenic for several cancer sites, and that even low dose alcohol use incurs an increased risk for cancer, the following conclusions should be considered for Europe’s Beating Cancer Plan and related initiatives:
- The contribution of alcohol consumption to cancer incidence and mortality should be clearly recognized without the use of any qualifiers or misleading adjectives such as “harmful” or “heavy” consumption of alcohol or “responsible drinking”.
- Measures should be taken to clearly inform the public of this risk, which is not well known among the general population, including enforcement of the dissemination of the European Code Against Cancer recommendations.
- WHO/Europe’s European Framework for Action on Alcohol 2022-2025 and WHO’s Global Alcohol Action Plan 2022–2030 both recommend the use of health warning labels on alcoholic beverage containers to inform the public about the health consequences of alcohol use.
Movendi International reaction to the new WHO Europe and IARC statement
Movendi International President Kristina Sperkova has welcomed the timely statement by WHO Europe and the IARC.
People want change. People want to know that alcohol causes cancer and they want to be protected from avoidable cancer risks. We are getting this feedback clearly in the work with our Be Loud For Change campaign,” says Kristina Sperkova of Movendi International.
The European Parliament has the chance to be the champion of the people and our health and well-being.
That’s why we welcome the initiative of WHO to inform Members of Parliament about world class science, showing the importance and potential of using alcohol policy to prevent cancer cases and deaths in Europe.
The alcohol industry is causing confusion and is trying to deceive lawmakers. Apparently, wine, beer, and liquor companies do not want people to know their products cause cancer.
But people have a right to know and our elected representatives have an obligation to protect us and our communities from one of the biggest health, social, and economic problems in the EU through using scientifically unimpeachable alcohol policy solutions.”Kristina Sperkova, International President, Movendi International
Alcohol and cancer in the European Union – a call to action
In addition to the timely statement, WHO Europe has also released a fact sheet on alcohol and cancer in the European Union.
Cancer is currently the second-leading cause of death in the European Union. The numbers of cancer cases and deaths are on the rise in the EU. Cancer cases and deaths are driven by tobacco smoking, alcohol use, physical inactivity, and unhealthy diets.
Europe has the highest level of alcohol use globally. 7 of the top 10 countries with the highest alcohol consumption are in the EU.
Approximately 240,000 people died because of alcohol in 2019 in the EU and 3 out of every 10 alcohol deaths were due to cancer.
Even small amounts of alcohol can cause cancer, especially in women
The WHO Europe fact sheet provides data showing even small amounts of alcohol can cause cancer, especially in women.
Consuming small amounts of alcohol increases the risk of cancer and the more alcohol a person consumes the higher the risk becomes. The relationship between the amount of alcohol a person consumes and the increased risk of cancer differs by cancer type. For some cancers like breast cancer even a small amount of alcohol can increase the risk.
More than half of all cancers caused by alcohol consumption are due to small amount of alcohol use.
Nearly a third of breast cancer cases caused by alcohol drinking among women are due to consumption of small amounts of alcohol.
Big Alcohol lobby interference against an evidence-based response to Europe’s NCDs burden
The attempt to water down language on alcohol’s severe cancer risk in the compromise amendments by warning only against an alleged ‘harmful use’ is alarming people and communities as well as public health experts, such as the IARC and WHO Europe.
In the beginning of 2023, WHO released a statement in the world’s most renowned medical journal stating that no level of alcohol consumption is safe for health.
The terminology of ‘moderate and responsible drinking information’ or ‘harmful consumption of alcohol’ is scientifically inaccurate and worrisome in the context of cancer prevention,” the WHO letter reads, as per Euractiv.Dr Hans Kluge, Regional Director, WHO Europe
In the final compromises document obtained by Euractiv, a reference to “alcohol consumption” was removed from paragraph 3 of the text, which included a list of risk factors and determinants that “substantially increase the risk of NCDs”.
The list enumerates other cancer risk factors such as tobacco use, unhealthy diets, and exposure to chemicals while maintaining only a mention of the “harmful use of alcohol.”
Another reference to “alcohol consumption”, originally included in paragraph 6 as “a risk factor for multiple NCDs”, was scrapped as well, indicating once again just the wording on ‘harmful use’.
Euractiv calls the removal of the term ‘alcohol consumption’ a parliamentary intrigue because in preliminary compromises initially agreed by political groups and the rapporteur, the wording “alcohol consumption notably the harmful use of alcohol” was present.
Alcohol industry interference succeeded in removing the “alcohol consumption notably” after the compromise’ negotiations were over.
Back in October, lobby groups representing Big Alcohol in the EU, including the Comité Européen des Entreprises Vins (CEEV) and the EU farmers lobby Copa-Cogeca, lobbied members of the SANT committee pushing for the flawed concept of distinguishing “between harmful use of alcohol and moderate/responsible consumption”.
Putting people before profits in the voting on the NCDs report
The EP NCDs report has potential to improve the health and well-being of people in Europe through accelerating the prevention of NCDs. But amendments to the alcohol-related sections have watered down the report and are undermining effective action to promote health and protect people from disease.
These amendments are the result of ruthless alcohol industry lobbying.
Failing to properly address Europe’s alcohol burden comes at great cost to people’s health, societies’ welfare, and economic growth and productivity across the EU.
Movendi International has developed a fact sheet on the economic burden caused by alcohol harm in Europe.
The new fact sheet details how the harm due to alcohol is draining precious resources from European countries. The massive health harm of alcohol also means serious economic harm – resulting in a decrease in the welfare of societies in Europe.
Movendi International calls on lawmakers to put the health of people before the profits of Big Alcohol, to heed world class scientific evidence, and to vote in favor of proven alcohol policy solutions.
Movendi International members are calling on our elected representatives in the European Parliament to include the term alcohol consumption and to reject alcohol industry attempts to remove it, leaving only the flawed concept of “harmful use of alcohol” in the report.
Movendi International members from Sweden to Slovenia, from Germany to Slovakia, are also calling on their elected representatives in the European Parliament to include alcohol health warnings and to reject Big Alcohol’s interference to completely remove any mention of alcohol health warning labeling.
And this dramatic case of alcohol industry interference shows again how important it is to protect democratic institutions from undue influence by alcohol lobbyists.Kristina Sperkova, International President, Movendi International
WHO Europe: “Joint statement by WHO/Europe and IARC to the European Parliament – raising awareness of the link between alcohol and cancer”