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Views on Europe | T minus three

Professor Nick Sheron

Why some alcohol challenges are best tackled at European scale

We live in an internal European market where the free movement of goods is jealously guarded. The internal market provides many benefits to citizens. But despite some products being demonstrably responsible for widespread harm, goods circulating on the market are treated as similar consumer articles, with little differentiation between products.

When a country individually considers introducing public health measures that impinge in one way or another on the free flow of goods, it must be ready not only to face heavy national industry opposition, but that of European stakeholders as well. This recently happened to Scotland when it sought to introduce minimum unit pricing for alcohol.

The country would also face the watchful eye of the European Commission which, in accordance with its mandate, will guard the internal market. Thus it was that infringement proceedings were opened against the UK’s voluntary ‘traffic light’ labelling scheme for food.

While some countries push ahead with regulating alcohol despite this sort of opposition, as Estonia and Ireland are now doing, others are more confident taking a common approach. It is not for nothing that the EU Council of Ministers, an institution usually known for saying ‘no’, has repeatedly asked for a new European alcohol strategy. The same is true of the House of Lords, largely supported by the UK Government.

The EU should act where it has competence and can provide added value in transnational affairs or by breaking through national political stalemate. Good examples of this would include the levels of excise duties, alcohol marketing through television and internet, and labelling requirements.

Competence is often disputed, but in reality there is no plausible legal reason for why the EU should not act on alcohol as it did on tobacco. The Tobacco Products Directive, by acknowledging tobacco’s obvious ‘health sensitive’ nature, set a common level playing field for regulation and carved out a space for tobacco from the full application of the free movement principle. It has also provided momentum for additional national measures, including the introduction of plain packaging.

Beyond the technicalities of regulation, there is a basic logic in addressing common problems together. Europe as a whole is the heaviest drinking region in the world, not limited to the UK or any other particular European country. Habits in a common cultural space are contagious, whether you are on an island or not.




Professor Nick Sheron

Nick is Professor and Head of Clinical Hepatology within Medicine at the University of Southampton, this article was written in collaboration with Dr Nikolai Pushkarev, Policy Coordinator Food Environments & Sustainable Diets at the European Public Health Alliance.


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