A new EU Alcohol Strategy? - European Union Committee Contents

A new EU Alcohol Strategy?


1.  Alcohol, when drunk to excess, is a significant cause of disease and premature death, and can be a fuel for public disorder and crime. Most states which do not altogether prohibit the consumption of alcohol have policies aimed at combating alcohol abuse.

2.  Article 168 TFEU makes clear that public health matters are primarily the responsibility of Member States, and that action by the EU is designed only to complement those policies. However, the EU has strategies for issues ranging from security in the Sahel to climate change, from counter-terrorism to microbiology. The European Commission has never been inhibited from proposing a strategy on a topic, or the Council from adopting one, merely because the EU has only limited competence in the relevant field. There are so many strategies in the medical area alone that the Director of the Health Directorate of the Commission's Directorate-General for Research, Science and Innovation (DG Research)[1] was uncertain whether the number was 45 or 125.[2]

3.  The EU does not however currently have a strategy on alcohol. There was an EU Alcohol Strategy from 2006-2012,[3] which we discuss in detail in Chapter 3. The object of our inquiry, conducted by our Sub-Committee on Home Affairs, Health and Education, has been to consider whether that Strategy was successful in its main object of reducing alcohol-related harm, and the case for further action at EU level.[4]

4.  By a significant margin, Europe has the highest per capita alcohol consumption of any world region, and the United Kingdom is well above the average of the consumption league.[5] But there are wide variations across the Member States, and indeed regionally within Member States: variations in the type and strength of alcohol consumed, variations in the distribution of consumption by sex and by age, variations in the type and degree of harm caused. There are variations in cost, in duties, in laws on sale and on advertising, in age limits, and in other aspects of policy aimed at reducing alcohol abuse, and at treating the problems it causes. We consider many of these matters in Chapter 2.

5.  The EU is not the only multi-national organisation with an alcohol strategy for Europe. As far back as 1992 the European Region of the World Health Organization (WHO) adopted an Alcohol Action Plan, the first WHO Region to do so. In 2012, the date of formal expiry of the EU Strategy, the WHO adopted a further European Action Plan to reduce the harmful use of alcohol[6] (the 2012 WHO report). We consider this in Chapter 4, since it has a major impact on the case for further EU action which is the main topic of that chapter. In Chapters 5 to 9 we look at the possible policy approaches, at the EU bodies involved, their structures and their achievements, and at research and evidence. In Chapter 10 we pull together the threads and summarise our key recommendations.

6.  We received a considerable volume of written evidence,[7] and held fifteen sessions of oral evidence. We are most grateful to all those who took the time and trouble to give us their views.[8] We received evidence from the three Government departments involved, the Department of Health, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, and the Home Office—and from Jane Ellison MP, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Public Health. Four of our evidence sessions were held in Brussels, where our witnesses included the WHO, members of the European Parliament's Environment, Public Health and Food Safety Committee (ENVI), and officials from the Commission's DG Research—but not, sadly, from the Directorate General for Health and Consumers (DG SANCO).[9]

7.  Our other witnesses came mainly from two sectors with opposing views: the advocates for public health, and those concerned with the manufacture, retailing, marketing and advertising of alcoholic drinks. It was to be expected that their views would differ strongly. We did not, however, expect that they would be able to draw from the same pieces of research views which were diametrically opposed, nor did we anticipate the degree of mistrust with which they viewed each other's work.

8.  Self-evidently, the EU can take action in the fields covered by this report only to the extent that it has competence to do so under the Treaties. The Treaty of Lisbon has amended that competence, though not radically, since the Strategy was adopted in 2006. We set out in Appendix 4 the relevant provisions of the current Treaties, and how they differ from the provisions in force in 2006.

9.  We have been fortunate in having as our specialist adviser for this inquiry Professor Betsy Thom, Professor of Health Policy, Middlesex University. We are most grateful for her expert knowledge and wise guidance.

10.  We make this report to the House for debate.

1   The Directorate-General for Research, Science and Innovation. Prior to the reorganisation of the Directorates under the new Commission, it was the Directorate-General for Research and Innovation. Back

2    Q145 (Dr Ruxandra Draghia-Akli) Back

3   Communication from the Commission, An EU strategy to support Member States in reducing alcohol related harm (COM(2006)625 final). We will refer to this Strategy as "the Strategy" in this report. Back

4   The members of the Sub-Committee are listed in Appendix 1.  Back

5   WHO Regional Office for Europe, Alcohol in the European Union: Consumption, harm and policy approaches (2012): http://www.euro.who.int/__data/assets/pdf_file/0003/160680/e96457.pdf [accessed 24 February 2015] Back

6   WHO Regional Office for Europe, Alcohol in the European Union: Consumption, harm and policy approaches (2012): http://www.euro.who.int/__data/assets/pdf_file/0003/160680/e96457.pdf [accessed 24 February 2015] Back

7   Our Call for Evidence is set out in Appendix 3. Back

8   The list of witnesses is at Appendix 2. Back

9   Since the reorganisation of the Directorates under the new Commission, DG SANCO has been re-named the Directorate-General for Health and Food Safety (DG SANTE). Our witnesses referred to it by its then current title, DG SANCO, and we have done the same. Back

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