On 12 May, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) has published its new report ‘Tackling Harmful Alcohol Use: Economics and Public Health Policy’, which analyses major trends in alcohol consumption in OECD countries. Following the statement on alcohol policy from EU health ministers and European Parliament’s resolution calling for a new EU Alcohol Strategy on 21 and 29 April, pressure is mounting on the European Commission to take policy action on alcohol.
Alcohol-abuse is the leading risk factor for ill-health and premature death for the working age population (25-59 years) in Europe (1). The societal costs of alcohol use in Europe are in excess of € 155 billion per year across the EU (2). Alcohol-related diseases across Europe claim 120,000 lives every year in the EU (3). The OECD study provides additional evidence on the huge socioeconomic- and health burden on alcohol on OECD countries and demonstrates that governments’ ability to design and implement wide-ranging prevention strategies, combining the strength of different policy approaches is critical to success.
Currently EU legislation is an obstacle to effective national policies to reduce alcohol related harm: with alcohol enjoying exemptions from labelling requirements, huge spending of public money to support wine producers within the framework of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) and 0% EU minimum tax rates on wine. The European Court of Justice is currently examining a case brought against Scotland’s plan to introduce minimum unit pricing – shown to be effective in protecting the heaviest drinkers to reduce their consumption. The case was brought by spirits producers, claiming their rights to market access trump the rights of governments to enact health-protecting laws.
The OECD report shows that an effective package of alcohol policies, including economic measures such as minimum unit pricing and taxes, as well as more effective measures to stop drink-driving, can reduce the total costs to society by over 10% and that these savings would be achieved quickly. The measures are also extremely cost-effective, with short periods to pay back the investments made by governments. The benefits to economies would be realised almost immediately – with quick results in terms of improving productivity and avoiding alcohol-related illnesses and disabilities.
The European Public Health Alliance (EPHA) (4) welcomes this new evidence on the effectiveness of different policy measures to reduce alcohol related harm and costs to society and taxpayers (5). The OECD report shows that alcohol negatively affects OECD countries’ socioeconomic performances as productivity losses associated with harmful alcohol use are in the region of 5% of GDP in most countries. (6)
“The OECD is an organization with impeccable economic credibility and so the modelling of health and economic impact of alcohol policy in this outstanding report deserves to be taken very seriously by governments around the world,“ said Professor Nick Sheron, EU Alcohol and Health Forum Representative at the Royal College of Physicians (UK) and EPHA Scientific advisor on alcohol.
The OECD study reaffirms the strong health inequality aspects of alcohol consumption. (7) Addressing alcohol-related harm is also crucial to reduce health inequalities, as the burden of disease and deaths related to alcohol are found to disproportionately affect the most deprived (8). Alcohol Minimum Unit Price (MUP) - such as that proposed by the Scottish Government (9)- is one of the most effective ways for society to minimize the damage from alcohol consumption.
“Europeans are the heaviest drinkers in the world, which comes at a high cost to our health and economies. The evidence for policy action to tackle the harmful effects of alcohol is overwhelming. Technical fixes are already available and should be mandatory, such as alcolocks which would prevent up to 6.500drink-driving deaths every year in the EU. That the EU currently blocks national governments from introducing effective measures, such as taxes, minimum unit prices or even proper labelling for consumers looks increasingly negligent and irresponsible,” commented EPHA Secretary General Nina Renshaw.
Six facts on alcohol abuse
Alcohol is the 3rd top risk factor in Europe for ill health and NCDs such as cancer and cardiovascular disease.
Alcohol is a toxic substance in terms of its direct and indirect effects on a wide range of body organs and a cause of some 60 diseases. Taking all diseases and injuries at global level into account, the negative health impact of alcohol consumption is 31.6 times higher than benefit
12 million people in the EU are dependent on alcohol.
Around 9 million children in the EU are living with one parent addicted to alcohol.
One of four road fatalities in EU are due to alcohol; in 2010 nearly 31,000 Europeans were killed on the roads of which 25% were related to alcohol.
Alcohol is responsible for one in seven male deaths and one in 13 female deaths in the group aged 15–64 years, resulting in approximately 120 000 premature deaths.
(1) Scientific Opinion of the Science Group of the European Alcohol and Health Forum (2011) Alcohol, Work and Productivity
(2) Rehm, J. et al (2012) Interventions for alcohol dependence in Europe: A missed opportunity to improve public health
(3)WHO Status report on alcohol and health in 35 European countries 2013.
(4) The European Public Health Alliance (EPHA) is a change agent – Europe’s leading NGO advocating for better health.
(5) The OECD report says “Alcohol influences the development of a host of diseases and injuries. Harmful consumption of alcohol rose from eighth to fifth leading cause of death and disability, worldwide, between 1990 and 2010.”
(6) Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) report ‘Tackling Harmful Alcohol Use: Economics and Public Health Policy’, Page 28, line 16
(7) The OECD study finds that “The majority of alcohol is drunk by the heaviest-drinking 20% of the population in the countries examined. Less educated and lower socioeconomic status (SES) men, as well as more educated and higher SES women, are more likely to indulge in risky drinking.”
(8) Herttua, K et al (2008) Changes in alcohol-related mortality
(9) [Joint press release] Doctors take battle to implement “Scotland the brave’s” alcohol minimum unit price policy to Brussels
Trends in alcohol consumption in Europe continue their positive course
Over recent months, we have seen very welcome findings on drinking behaviours released by leading health authorities across Europe, particularly with regards to the decline in underage drinking. This contrasts sharply with misleading coverage which often suggests that overall consumption is dangerously on the increase, in particular since the pandemic started, writes spiritsEurope Director General Ulrich Adam.
The World Health Organization’s 2019 status report showed that average alcohol consumption in Europe fell between 2010 and 2016, and that there were particular decreases in average consumption and drinking rates among young people, as well as an 11% decrease in the prevalence of ‘heavy episodic drinking.’
This was not the only sign that positive changes are taking place across Europe: the latest ESPAD (European School Survey Project on Alcohol and Other Drugs) report shows steady decreases in lifetime alcohol consumption among young people between 1995 and 2019 in the EU.
Compared to 2003, overall alcohol consumption fell by 22% and declined in nearly all Member States. Heavy episodic drinking fell by 19%, and 86% of the respondents reported never being drunk in the past month.
We have just published a useful summary of this ESPAD survey highlighting the key findings. But these statistics do not cover the period since the arrival of Covid-19.
So how has the pandemic affected overall consumption trends?
Over the last year, concerns have been raised about how Covid-19 and the resulting lockdowns could threaten recent progress.
Thankfully, far from giving rise to more irresponsibility, Covid has not altered the positive long-term trends when it comes to alcohol consumption and misuse. In fact, all the indications are that people have, overall, been drinking much less. Sensationalist reports focused on higher sales in some retail outlets ignored the dramatic declines in sales in bars and restaurants, where most drinking traditionally occurs.
For example, data from IWSR Drinks Market Analysis showed significant declines in alcohol consumption during the pandemic in most markets including across Europe.
A growing body of independent evidence also points to a broader decline in all other social settings over the last year.
A YouGov survey in 2020 – involving more than 11,000 people across a number of countries including France, Germany and the UK – found that 84% of drinkers were not consuming more alcohol than they had been before the lockdown, and more than one in three had cut down on their drinking or quit entirely.
Meanwhile in the Netherlands, new figures from the Trimbos Institute showed that 49% of people aged 16-35 cut down on their drinking during the first lockdown compared to the same period in 2019, while another 23% consumed the same amount.
Simply put, regardless of those misleading headlines, all of the evidence points to a continuation of the long-term downward trajectory in both alcohol consumption and misuse.
Of course, that does not mean that there is not more work to be done – far from it.
There is no acceptable level of underage drinking, just like there is no acceptable level of the sort of heavy drinking which is detrimental to health. As an industry and as a society, we need to reflect on what we have accomplished, and the work that still lies ahead.
The consistent progress which societies in Europe have made in reducing alcohol-related harm in recent years – and the continuation of this progress during the lockdowns – shows that we are on the right track and that the long-term positive trends are set to continue, as we start to reopen vital sectors of our economies.
One thing which millions of Europeans are looking forward to is the ability to enjoy a drink in bars and restaurants once again, safely, socially, and responsibly.
spiritsEUROPE will continue to work with our partners in the hospitality sector to ensure that that reopening is achieved safely, and so that we can all continue to maintain the positive course towards a more moderate drinking culture across the EU.
Commission publishes public consultation on the taxation of cross-border alcohol and tobacco purchases in the EU
The Commission has launched a public consultation on the taxation of cross-border alcohol and tobacco purchases in the EU. Under current rules, excise duty on alcohol and tobacco bought by a private individual for their own use and transported to another EU country is only paid in the country where the goods were bought. This is the case even if they bring these goods into another member state.
For both alcohol and tobacco products, the misuse of cross-border shopping rules for private individuals is a source of concern for several EU countries due to lost revenues and the negative impact on the effectiveness of national public health policies. The current EU rules of cross-border shopping of alcohol beverages and tobacco products by private individuals are being reviewed to ensure that they remain fit for purpose to balance the objectives of public revenues and health protection.
This is particularly important in the context of the European Action Plan against Cancer since taxation plays a pivotal role in reducing alcohol and tobacco consumption, in particular when it comes to acting as a deterrent to stop young people from smoking and abusing alcohol. The public consultation aims to ensure that all relevant stakeholders have an opportunity to express their views on the current rules and how they might work in the future. It includes questions on the effects of the current system, along with possible changes. The public consultation is available here and remains open until 23 April 2021.
Excise duties: Commission welcomes agreement on rules governing alcohol
The Commission has welcomed the 30 July agreement reached in the Council on the new rules governing excise duties on alcohol within the EU. This agreement paves the way for a better business environment and reduced costs for small alcohol-producing businesses. The agreed new rules will ensure that small and artisan alcohol producers have access to a new EU-wide certification system confirming their access to lower excise duty rates across the Union.
This will have a positive impact on consumers, which will benefit from a crackdown on the illegal use of tax-free denatured alcohol to make counterfeit drinks. There will also be an increase in the threshold for lower strength beer to which reduced rates may apply to encourage brewers to produce beverages with a lower alcohol content.
Following the agreement, Economy Commissioner Paolo Gentiloni said: "Today's agreement is a welcome move towards a more modern and fairer tax regime for alcohol which also supports our fight against fraud.”
New rules will be applicable from 1 January 2022. The Commission will monitor the introduction of an excise duty or reduced excise rates for private production of ethyl alcohol and will report to the Council on this measure.
A full press release is available here.
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