In Europe, alcohol abuse is the third leading risk factor for disease and mortality. It is also a major fuel for public disorder and crime. Europe has the highest per capita alcohol consumption of any part of the world, and United Kingdom consumption is well above the European average.
In 2006 the Commission proposed and the Council adopted "an EU Strategy to support Member States in reducing alcohol-related harm". Its five priorities were to protect young people, children and unborn children; to reduce deaths and injuries from alcohol-related road accidents; to reduce alcohol-related harm among adults; to increase education and awareness; and to develop and maintain a common evidence base.
The Strategy was given an end date of 2012. The Commission has done nothing to renew or replace it. In this inquiry we have been looking at what has been achieved, and what should come next.
EU competence in this area is limited. There are areas where the EU can usefully coordinate the activities of Member States, but only a few topics where it can act, and where its actions can make a difference. The Strategy failed to differentiate between them. A new EU Alcohol Strategy which is simply a continuation of the previous one would only perpetuate its deficiencies. Future action at EU level should concentrate on the initiatives which the EU can take and which would make a difference, in particular by taking a "health in all policies" approach to its own policies in the areas of taxation, labelling and marketing.
The structure of alcohol taxation must be made more rational. The labelling of alcoholic beverages, for too long exempt from the Food Labelling Regulation, must be brought within its scope. The uncertain mandate of the EU-level bodies set up under the Strategy should be clarified. If the Court of Justice rules that the attempt by Scotland to impose minimum unit pricing (MUP) is lawful, the Government must monitor the effects of its introduction in Scotland. If it appears to be successful in targeting the heaviest drinkers, the Government should implement its undertaking to introduce MUP in England and Wales.
The development and maintenance of a common evidence base, the fifth priority of the 2006-12 Strategy, has not been achieved, and many of the current problems stem from this. There is much disagreement and lack of trust between the public health professionals and the manufacturing, retailing and advertising industries about the available evidence, research and statistics. We have suggested how changes in the commissioning of research might produce evidence which is more trusted and on which policies can be based.
The Latvian Presidency intends to discuss the next steps towards a new EU Alcohol Strategy at an informal Council on 20-21 April 2015. We hope that our recommendations will assist the deliberations of the Member States, and that they will invite the Commission to proceed on the lines we have suggested.