Nordic health ministers have agreed for the first time to align their alcohol policies in order to reduce consumption.

Meeting in Copenhagen on Monday (18 October 2004), the ministers of Finland, Sweden, Norway, Iceland and Denmark also agreed to act as a block during international negotiations in the World Health Organisation (WHO) and in the EU on alcohol policies.

Alcoholic products are not like any other product and should be treated under special rules due to the social- and health-related effects of their consumption, the ministers said in a statement after their meeting.

The Nordic ministers suggested higher taxes on alcohol in general, including on wine, and want to keep restrictions on quantities allowed to be transported by people travelling across borders.

1.8 million deaths

The European Commission is to present a new strategy in spring to minimise alcohol-related ill health. "In the West, it is tobacco, sugar and alcohol that are the three major areas of problems. In addition, we are fighting drugs. But as a health problem, alcohol is one of the three major problems", said former head of WHO Gro Harlem Bruntland, according to Aftenposten.

The WHO estimates 1.8 million people die annually of alcohol-related diseases.

Luxembourg holds the record

Norway, Sweden and Iceland, who charge the highest prices for alcohol, are also among the five nations in Europe with the lowest annual consumption of pure alcohol per person.

According to the WHO, people in Iceland annually consume just 4.41 litres of pure alcohol per person.

By contrast, Luxembourgers have the highest consumption with 14.47 litres per year per person, according to the WHO.

However, Luxembourg has lower prices than its neighbours, which makes many consumers cross the border in order to buy cheaper alcohol there.

Meanwhile Czechs drink 13.59 litres, the Irish 11.36 litres, the French 11.03 litres and the Germans 10.92 litres per year.

Under pressure from internal market

The Nordic system - high prices and low consumption - is under pressure from the EU’s internal market which allows private consumers to buy low-taxed liquor in other countries.

"It is about stopping a domino effect of all countries lowering taxes to the level of the lowest country", said the Danish minister of health Lars Løkke Rasmussen to Swedish Radio.

A whole industry of cross-border shopping has developed in these northern countries because the price of alcohol differs widely from country to country.

The average price of the locally most consumed bottle of spirits (0.7 litres) vary from 5.57 euro in Estonia to 20.09 euro in neighbouring Finland, according to the alcohol control database of the World Health Organisation.

In Germany, the price is just 5 euro on average, while the Danes on the other side of the border have to pay 10.75 euro.

Topping the expense league is Norway where liquor is priced at 39.01 euro on average per bottle, followed by Iceland’s 28.37 euro and Sweden’s 21.54 euro average.

Last modified on October 29 2004.