On public health, why is the #EC silencing NGOs?

| January 14, 2018 | 0 Comments

With the festive season now in the rear view mirror, it’s only fitting that the European Commission is attempting to persuade NGOs to resume their participation in the EU Alcohol and Health Forum (EAHF). Set up in 2007 to provide a space to discuss and share best practices on the reduction of alcohol-related harm, the forum ran into trouble in 2015. In a move that was only applauded by alcohol interests groups, the Commission’s refusal to submit a new alcohol strategy after the previous one expired in 2013 led to the resignation of 20 public health NGOs from the EAHF.

Along with the controversy over tobacco control, the EAHF debacle highlights an inconvenient truth: the Commission seems to have an easier time convincing the industry itself rather than civil society actors that its regulations are on the right track.

The alcohol industry rejoiced in 2015 when the EC dropped references to the harmful effects of alcohol consumption. EU Health and Food Safety Commissioner Vytenis Andriukaitis said at the time that the issue of alcohol-related harm would instead be addressed as part of a holistic approach, grouped in with chronic diseases resulting from tobacco consumption and unhealthy eating habits.

The focus of the debate has since shifted to the broader adverse effects of weight gain as a result of consuming alcoholic beverages. In line with Andriukaitis’ statement to bundle alcohol with dietary issues, the EU’s executive adopted in March 2017 a report proposing mandatory labelling of the nutritional and caloric values of alcoholic drinks.

Brussels’ main argument for doing so is noting that its work to support member states in their fight against alcohol abuse is producing results. Indeed, the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) most recent Global status report on alcohol and health (2014) noted a per capita reduction of alcohol consumption of Europeans aged 15 and up, from 12.2 litres in 2005 to 10.9 litres in 2010.

Speaking with Euractiv, Laure Alexandre from spiritsEUROPE, which represents producers of spirit drinks at EU level, said the NGOs that left the forum did so because of its focus on delivering results on the ground over policy discussion. While it may be the case that some of the work forum members have undertaken over recent years might have had a positive impact on levels of harmful drinking among young people across Europe, alarm bells should start ringing when an initiative such as the EAHF enjoys almost unanimous support from groups linked to the alcohol industry, and almost none from NGOs whose sole purpose is to campaign for improved public health outcomes.

But the EC’s pro-business stance is even more worrisome when considering its efforts to regulate that other great vice, smoking.

On the face of things, the European Union appears to give the tobacco industry a rougher ride, having introduced a number of control measures designed to cut the rate of smoking in member states. However, while the EU is restricting the availability of tobacco products and launching anti-smoking campaigns, it is also working closely with big tobacco companies: despite being a signatory to the WHO’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC), which bars governments from working together with tobacco industry representatives in drafting regulations, the EU is allowing cigarette makers to play a central role in the fight against tobacco smuggling.

Indeed, even if some firms have been known to illegally traffic their own products in a bid to avoid paying taxes, the EC is considering entrusting its “track and trace” system for monitoring illegal tobacco to a company that is linked to the industry, raising worries that cigarette makers could dodge a requirement to always know where their products are. According to a set of delegated acts passed in December, Codentify, a system created by Philip Morris International whose ownership was transferred in mid-2016 to a new entity called Inexto, is considered independent by the tobacco industry to participate in the track and trace scheme. That comes despite the fact that the senior PMI executives left lucrative jobs to join Inexto, a company based in close proximity to PMI’s Lausanne offices. Hopes are now riding high that the European Parliament will refuse to approve the delegated acts, when it votes later this year.

As with the Commission’s refusal to produce a new alcohol strategy and its effective side-lining of NGOs concerned with levels of excessive drinking in member states, the executive’s inconsistent approach to tobacco control demonstrates an institutional failure that clearly favours big businesses that can afford highly-paid lobbyists. The European Network for Smoking and Tobacco Prevention (ENSP), a leading anti-tobacco NGO, urged the EC to reconsider its stance and enshrine in the document the need for an independent track and trace solution – to no avail, however.

After protesting the Commission’s stance, the ENSP was notified in late December that its EC grants would be suspended, leaving one of the most important tobacco control actors in Europe fighting for survival.  Adding insult to injury, anti-civil society forces within European institutions are pushing to subject NGOs to the same filing/reporting requirements that major corporations are subject to, a move that could seriously impact their ability to operate. While these attempts have so far failed, more will likely be launched in the future, putting the future of non-governmental advocacy groups under increasing threat.

Without these organisations, big alcohol and tobacco firms will be able to use their immense wealth to unfairly influence EU policy on the sale of their products on an even greater scale, despite the fact that the European Commission has voiced its desire to reduce the harm caused by smoking and excessive drinking.

As things stand, it looks as though public health, and the NGOs set up to promote it, will continue to be a lower priority for EU policy makers than the demands of companies selling products that can kill. The only hope can now come from the European Parliament, which could play the same role it had in 2016 when it sided against the EC and the tobacco industry, and vote in favour of an independent track and trace system, as mandated by the FCTC.

 

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Category: A Frontpage, Alcohol, Belgium, EU, EU, featured, Featured Article, Health, World Health Organization

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