Obviously, alcohol consumption is an important issue which is in the center of interests of many of us. Although it belongs to the culture and to our social life, and there is a major business factor as well, my reflection is based solely on public health grounds.
The ‘kick-off spark’ of this entry emerged from an EurActive interview with Despina Spanou responsible for strategy and communication coordination for all DG Sanco policies which text is available here.
First of all, I would like to start with a general statement concerning the importance and relevance of overall public health issues (and alcohol consumption is definitely one of them) in an EU-Blog openly dedicated to EU affairs.
Why does this EU Blog cover altogether public health issues since maintaining the health systems belongs mainly to the core competences of the Member States?
Putting forward this question may be justified. Nonetheless, in that case the accent is on ‘mainly’. Yes, hospitals, doctors, pharmacies and other ‘visible signs’ of existing and functioning health systems are really regulated at Member States level. But since Maastricht, the EU is more than a free economic trade zone or a simple economic union. The so-called ‘community method’ covers other important areas of public politics which can be better regulated at EU level. Still, some health issues – and may we name them ‘public health issues’ – may concern several Member States (the most obvious examples are epidemic diseases) at the same time. And if this is the case, the EU has some competencies to make further EU regulations co-ordinating the Member States’ efforts to fight agains these public health hazards. But alltogether it is true that in comparison with other areas of the law of the Union the legal space of manoeuvre is rather limitated here (see Article 168 in TITLE XIV on Public Health of the TFEU)
What is alcohol all about?
Alcohol is a poison and a dangerous one. It is hard to acknowledge but as a starting point of our reflections, it shall be clearly laid down.
Before making some additional comments, I would like to avoid even the semblance of virtue of being hypocritical. I am aware of the importance of alcohol not only in our history and economy but also in our current society.
And to be honest, I personally had first hand experiences on its effects when I participated in different parties during my youth as a student in Szeged or Paris – as 90% of people in that age did and I am convinced do so.
Why is alcohol consuming then so dangerous?
And here lies it’s dangerous nature: the danger is not obvious at first sight. The harmful effects mainly occur later in our life when it is already too late to act. In spite of tobacco, alcohol has approved positive effects in a small quantity, so it is often considered as some kind of ‘medicine’.
All these additional factors contibute to the overall picture but do not change the basis that alcohol shall be treated – and regulated – as a serious public health risk factor.
If somebody has further arguments or would like to make a statement starting with “Yes, but…” may I kindly draw your attention to the terrible public health facts and statistics concerning the number of serious illnesses directly linked to alcohol consumption (including seceral types of cancer) and the high number of deaths occuring through alcohol consumption – not to mention the car accidents. And if we started to count the endless costs of these factors we would look soon for some public health policy tool to stop this negative tendency.
Thus, alcohol is a fundamental public health danger!
What is the stay of play in the EU?
Generally, public health is fortunately part of the main important aspects of the European integration process since one Comissioner nominated from one of the 27 Member States is always responsible for public health (who is currently HE Mr. John Dalli).
More specificely, after the Council has adopted its own Recommendation on the drinking of alcohol by young people, in particular children and adolescents in 2001 the current alcohol strategy dates back to 2006(!), which you can read here:
(Additional remark: The Member States have their own alcohol strategies the EU’s alcohol strategy complement of.)
And here begin my concerns, since the last legal progress was made 6 years ago. And taking into account that we are not talking about strictly binding regulations and directives but rather on a recommendation of soft-law nature, this delay can be considered even worst. And it seems that the next step forward will come out only under thy Cypriot EU presidency in the second half of 2012, and according to the projections, the Council won’t be in the position to adopt the new strategy until the end of the year.
About the voluntary commitments of the alcohol-industry
My second remark concerns the voluntary commitments, as regards the ‘alcohol kills’ labels.
As a starting point, we know very well the efficiency of these labels on cigarettes.
Secondly, I do not contest that any kind of voluntary commitment can be part – and an important one! – of any kind of legal regulation. They are even more important because the enforcement of these voluntary steps are much more ensured than those of the mandatory ones.
However, we might not forget the reasons behind of such voluntary commitments.
Let’s be clear: the alcohol industry is a major contributor to the ordinary function of the society and economy but it is not fair to wait for them that they will put public health interests at the top of their priorities. It is not their duty. Their way of functioning and logic behind their businesses are completely different and the legislator has to understand it: the public health lead policy makers have the mission to make public health based (EU) legislations, it is their responsibility.
Therefore, there is up to the EU to discover the urgent need to action and there is no need to wait for the industries’ voluntary commitment and to regard this voluntary commitments as a basis of further negotiations on the exact content of a future legislation. Neither may the appreciated voluntary steps further delay the EU’s actions in that matter.
In my opinion, by regulating alcohol consumption, the EU touches upon one of the most important public health field to be regulated appropriately. Due to the long period which followed the adoption of the current alcohol strategy there is of utmost importance to adopt the new one as soon as possible.
The voluntary commintments are crucial parts of the EU actions but they may never replace the EU’s own legislation and determined legal action as regards public health.
I remain at your disposal.
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(cover photo “Sportsmen, away with the alcohol!” © Albert Hahn jr., 1928)Zoltán Massay-Kosubek