EU and alcohol policies internationally

by Robin Room

Centre for Social Research on Alcohol & Drugs, Stockholm University

At present the EU and its member states routinely act against the public health interest on alcohol issues in the international arena.

A recent example is the discussions in the World Trade Organization process about Thailand’s intention to introduce graphic warning labels on alcohol. The EU as a whole and a number of alcohol-exporting countries have been arguing that Thailand’s measures would be a technical restraint on trade, not allowed under free-trade agreements. The EU asked whether Thailand has considered alternative measures less burdensome on trade such as information and education campaigns. But such measures, as we know from the research literature, would be ineffective. The EU also complained that requiring the warning to be on the front of the bottle would interfere with the producers’ own product labelling. To give such labelling priority is not acting in the public health interest.

In another international arena, the World Health Organization is in the process of adopting measures to monitor progress in combating Non-Communicable Diseases (NCDs) such as cancer and heart disease. The UN General Assembly’s Special Session on NCDs last September gave new priority to fighting against NCDs, and at that time it was agreed that alcohol, along with tobacco and obesity, was among the top risk factors. Now a revised draft of the WHO monitoring measures proposes to drop alcohol consumption level as an indicator. This would be a substantial backward step, since it would effectively drop alcohol from the list of main risk factors to be reduced. The WHO’s summary of the objections that were made to this as an indicator in the first draft include that countries had made technical objections (in my view not well founded), but had also noted that such a goal would make it hard to cooperate with the alcohol industry. There are indications of leadership by large EU member states in making such objections.

The first ALICE RAP Policy Brief on alcohol policy will put forward a solid case that the EU has a drinking problem, in terms of its own consumption levels. Not content with this, the EU and some of its member states seem to be intent on getting the rest of the world to join it in this. The EU needs to rethink its foreign and trade policies on alcohol; it is shameful for its foreign policy representation to be used by the EU-based alcohol multinationals to increase alcohol problems in low- and middle-income countries.