European case of alcohol labelling is a good example of the results of industry lobby and effects of vested interests. An example where a logical decision is avoided and postponed without any serious explanation. It should be a wake-up call for both European Parliament and Commission to highlight alcohol policy and understand that without decisions, things are not moving along, writes Lauri Beekmann.
(Editor’s note: – This article was first published in an anti-alcohol, temperance blog by Lauri Beekmann on 27 March. Beekmann is the Director of NordAN, the stated aim of which is “to promote restrictive alcohol and drug policies in the Nordic and Baltic countries”.)
Public health community was happy to welcome European Commissions report on mandatory labelling of the list of ingredients and the nutrition declaration of alcoholic beverages“ published earlier in March. Led by European Alcohol Policy Alliance Eurocare, public health NGO-s have systematically drawn Commissions attention to the fact that alcoholic beverages are exempted from the mandatory list of ingredients and the nutrition declaration.
While milk, lemonade and yoghurt have an obligation to list the ingredients, alcohol is an exception? As the report cites members states experts confusion, there is no justification why a soft drink should provide a nutrition declaration when the same soft drink mixed with a spirit would be exempted from such declaration.“
Report came to a conclusion that the Commission has not identified objective grounds that would justify the absence of information on ingredients and nutrition information on alcoholic beverages, and that the industry should present within a year a self-regulatory proposal that would cover the entire sector of alcoholic beverages. And if the Commission is not satisfied with this proposal it will launch an impact assessment to review further available options“.
So there is a clear progress but let´s look into the history of the whole topic. Citing the same report again:
Regarding the list of ingredients, the issue goes back to the first general labelling legislation adopted at EU level, where it was provided that ‘in the case of beverages containing more than 1,2% by volume of alcohol, the Council, acting on a proposal from the Commission, shall, before 22 December 1982, determine the rules for labelling ingredients’. The Commission presented proposals to address this request in 1982 and in 1992 but the Council could not agree on any of those proposals. The Commission then presented a new proposal in February 1997, which was finally put on the agenda of a Council Working Group in December 2002. Subsequent to these discussions, although the specific EU requirements for labelling ingredients, which may cause allergies or intolerances, covered also alcoholic beverages, no rules were introduced for the labelling of ingredients in general of alcoholic beverages.“
The 2011, Regulation maintains the mandatory list of ingredients and introduces mandatory nutrition declaration (energy value and the amounts of fat, saturates, carbohydrate, sugars, protein and salt) as from 16 December 2016. Alcoholic beverages are not covered by these provisions.“
As it appears the process started at least in 1982 and since then various working groups have repeatedly decided that alcohol is different compared to other foods and that alcohol industry should be freed from these responsibilities. It is difficult to imagine that this proposal – Let´s make an exception for alcohol “- came without alcohol industry´s pressure.” And it has survived the last 35 years.
It is true that alcohol producers have started different self-regulatory initiatives which includes also labelling. But that has´nt always been their position. Which is confirmed also by the report itself: The industry position on the matter has recently evolved significantly. Whereas in the past food business operators were opposed to any additional labelling requirement, today the majority of sectors acknowledge that consumers have the right to know about the content of their drinks.“
Where did that enlightenment came from? It is easy to be skeptical that they would do it without any external pressure. European Commission should remove the blindfolds and realize that alcohol industry has found their integrity and responsibility in parallel with some major global developments that are introducing or at least paving the road for stronger alcohol regulations. In 2006 European Union adopted its first ever alcohol strategy, four years later, in 2010, WHO its first ever global alcohol strategy. It is logical to conclude that we are witnessing similar developments that befell on tobacco industry. If alcohol industry would keep on opposing everything they could surely be removed from the table. As it happened to their colleagues at the tobacco side. Instead they are active in proposing several self regulation initiatives claiming that they are responsible enough and don´t need any statutory regulations. Main motive of it all seems to be prolonging the process and postponing the decisions made by governments and European Commission. To recap, they opposed to any labelling as long as the Commission was agreeing with them and as soon as the overall feeling started to change, they revised their ethics and proposed self regulation as a way forward.
Well, but perhaps labelling would just be ineffective? The report refers to a Commission-mandated study according to which almost half (49%) of the participants wanted information on the energy value of alcoholic beverages, and 16% declared their intention to reduce their alcohol consumption on the basis of this information.
But even if mandatory labelling would be rather ineffective in changing people´s behavior, it´s actually not the main point. It is chiefly a matter of consumer rights. People have the right to know what´s in their drink and what this drink could do to their bodies. For 35 years politicians and officials, influenced by alcohol industry, have decided that these rights are not important.
European Commission should guarantee now that this will not just be another chapter in this curious case that started in 1982.