“If policy-makers are serious about tackling the danger that heavy alcohol use poses to the health of European citizens, they should take care that weak economic arguments do not override public health concerns,” noted Rebecca Taylor MEP (UK, ALDE).

Europe is the heaviest drinking region of the world - with consumption levels in some countries approximately 2.5 times higher than the global average, alcohol is the number one risk factor for ill health and premature death among 25-59 year olds (3). “Alcohol misuse tears families apart and cost lives. Its wider impact on society, healthcare and the lost productivity due to sickness is enormous and yet probably understated,” said Alyn Smith MEP (UK, Greens/EFA). Alcohol misuse in Europe is estimated to cost around €156 billion each year (4) in a time in which the continent can ill-afford such an avoidable bite on resources.

“Both EU member states and Brussels cannot sit on their hands in the face of such a worrying situation. After many decades of huge alcohol harm in Europe, it is high time to put in place targeted policies to lessen the damage that alcohol misuse causes to millions,” pointed out Antonyia Parvanova MEP (BU, ALDE).

Alcohol misuse hits the poor badly. Hazardous drinkers tend to belong to vulnerable socio-economic groups and bear the brunt of alcohol-related harm in terms of its social and health impact. “Most heavy drinkers rely on cheap alcohol to maintain their habit. Increasing the price tag on alcohol is not going to bring overdrinking to a quick end, but it would go a long way to prevent many from buying the large quantities of strong and cut-price alcohol that damage their health,” argued Monika Kosińska, Secretary General of the European Public health Alliance (EPHA).

Minimum Unit Pricing (MUP) for alcohol would help tackle the abuse of alcohol and so the problems triggered by it. MUP sets a floor price below which alcohol cannot be legally sold and unlike taxation, MUP prices alcoholic beverages based on their strength.

“Alcohol misuse results in many premature deaths, needless injuries and illnesses. The science shows that setting minimum prices on alcohol reduces these serious harms to a significant degree. This policy is also more acceptable to the public and many sectors of the alcohol industry than across-the-board price increases,” argued Tim Stockwell, from the Centre for Addictions Research of British Columbia, University of Victoria in Canada.

Last year Scotland was the first region in the world to propose a MUP (5). “Alcohol misuse is costing Scotland too much and we firmly believe that minimum pricing is a key measure in our overall strategy to reduce consumption and alcohol related harm. We are perfectly clear that taxation would not – and cannot – deliver the targeted impact on heavy drinkers that is so vital,” said Alex Neil, Scottish Cabinet Secretary for Health and Well-being. “We remain absolutely committed to introducing minimum pricing in Scotland.”

Over the last few years the alcohol industry has been stretching its muscles (6) to convince policy makers not to further regulate the market. “Alcohol pricing is part of a comprehensive alcohol strategy. Minimum pricing is a tool that can be used and currently, whilst we are trying to apply this in Scotland, the alcohol industry is trying to prevent this from happening,” commented Catherine Stihler MEP (UK, S&D).

“For years we have heard the drinks industry demand that policies are targeted at the very heavy drinkers who provide a third of their profits. A minimum price per unit of alcohol is specifically targeted at these very heavy drinkers, because practically no one else can stomach these super-cheap, super-strong drinks, and yet some sections of the drinks industry are fiercely opposed,” said Nick Sheron, EU Alcohol Forum Representative, Royal College of Physicians.

“MUP could save over 300 lives a year in Scotland. European law should not be invoked to defeat alcohol harm reduction strategies. This is a paradox as the well-being of the population and the promotion of public health are primary objectives of the European treaties,” added Mariann Skar, Secretary General of The European Alcohol Policy Alliance (Eurocare).

The European Commission has also shown a degree of resistance to the Scottish MUP (7). Instead of slowing down the fight against alcohol misuse by using inconclusive single-market arguments, the Commission should help put an end to this avoidable public health threat. As a first step, it would have to show support for the Scottish MUP scheme that, if applied across Europe, has the potential to save thousands of lives every year.

- Notes to editors

(1) The seminar was hosted by the MEPs Rebecca Taylor (UK, ALDE), Catherine Stihler (UK, S&D), Alyn Smith (UK, Greens/EFA), and Antonyia Parvanova (BU, ALDE) and organised by the European Public Health Alliance (EPHA) and the Royal College of Physicians (RCP) with the support of Eurocare – the European Alcohol Policy Alliance.

(2) Alcohol and Cancer, a report by the Royal College of Physicians (RCP) and the Alcohol Health Alliance UK (AHA) that draws on the latest research to explain the relationship between alcohol and cancer and why this is a problem that the UK needs to tackle now.

(3) Anderson P, Braddick F, Reynolds J, and Gual (2012). Alcohol Policy in Europe: Evidence from Alcohol Public Health Research Alliance (AMPHORA).

(4) Anderson P, Braddick F, Reynolds J, and Gual (2012). Alcohol Policy in Europe: Evidence from Alcohol Public Health Research Alliance (AMPHORA).

(5) In May 2012, the Scottish Parliament passed legislation to introduce a MUP for alcohol that was due to come into force in Scotland in 2013. However, it has been put on hold as the Scottish measure is now beinglegally challenged by the Scottish Whisky Association and the European wine and spirits producers.

(6) AB InBev - A briefing on the alcohol lobby in Brussels and the potential for conflicts of interest, Friends of the Earth.

(7) The European Commission (EC) has objected to minimum pricing on free trade grounds. The EC argues that taxation should be used as an alternative to minimum pricing as it is a less trade restrictive measure.

- Contact information

Javier Delgado Rivera, EPHA Communications Coordinator at javier@epha.org or +32(0) 2 230 3076.

Ruth Ruiz. Senior Policy Officer, The European Alcohol Policy Alliance (Eurocare) at Ruth.ruiz@eurocare.org or +32 2 736 05 72

Last modified on May 1 2013.