At the 21 July informal meeting in Tallinn, EU health ministers discussed the issue of reducing alcohol-related harm in Europe. The focus was on cross-border aspects, which may have a significant impact on the implementation of national alcohol policies.
The ministers were invited to discuss the recent developments and future plans of alcohol policy, both at the national and EU level and to identify the main gaps, challenges, and cross-border issues that limit the opportunities of national governments to protect public health.
The Estonian Minister for Health and Labour, Jevgeni Ossinovski said that the responsibility for reducing alcohol related harm falls mainly on the member states, but some issues could be handled much more efficiently with co-operation. “Alcohol puts a heavy burden on the EU population, contributing to over 200 health conditions, and societal costs reaching up to 372 billion euros every year. It is our shared problem, affecting people of all ages across the EU,” said Minister Ossinovski. “Alcohol related harm has been addressed at the EU level for more than a decade. We have some results, but as long as every fourth death in young men in Europe is caused by alcohol we cannot be satisfied.”
Several member states have stressed the need for a stronger EU alcohol policy while holding the presidency of the Council of the European Union - Luxembourg (2015), Latvia (2015), Poland (2011), Sweden (2009), Finland (2006), and Ireland (2004). At the meeting, the Commissioner for Health and Food Safety Vytenis Andriukaitis gave an overview of what has been done on the EU level since 2015; when the most recent Council conclusions on alcohol policy were adopted.
''We focused on our joint efforts in fighting the effects of alcohol abuse within the EU. We have been doing so across dossiers for over 10 years now and our shared goal is to reduce alcohol-related harm by 10%, as set out in the World Health Organisation's (WHO) global action plan,” Andriukaitis said. “But let me stress, once again, that the fight against alcohol is our joint responsibility, which ultimately rests in the hands of the member states' health ministers, local authorities and national governments – they are the ones who decide on tax levels, the legal drinking age and regulations governing the buying and selling of alcohol and drunk driving.''
Dr Gauden Galea from the WHO Regional Office for Europe gave a presentation on the labelling of alcoholic beverages. An introductory presentation for discussions was also given by Dr Maris Jesse, Deputy Secretary General on Health, from the Ministry of Social Affairs of Estonia. The presentation gave an overview of the opinions of the European Union health professionals responsible for health policies regarding the alcohol policy issues that require joint discussions by ministers.
The ministers stressed the need to protect youth from alcohol advertising, emphasising the challenges presented by new media. “Most of the factors determining the extent of alcohol-related harm are dependent on the good co-operation between the health sector and the relevant fields, like taxation, trade, and marketing,” said Minister Ossinovski. “Therefore, in order to save lives and improve the well-being of the European people, different sectors have to be engaged and a health-in-all-policies approach applied.”
The labelling of alcoholic beverages was among the issues discussed at the meeting. “In the EU, a consumer may learn the content of bread or milk down to almost every molecule, but the same cannot be said for the labels of alcoholic beverages,” said Minister Ossinovski. “Labelling alone does not solve the problem of alcohol-related harm, but it gives people the opportunity to make informed choices.”
The relevance of alcohol labelling has been stressed in the recently launched report (PDF, 327 KB) by the European Commission, and is analysed in the in-depth policy document on alcohol labelling prepared by the World Health Organisation launched today, 21 July.
The health ministers agreed on the need for further discussions on the cross-border issues of alcohol policy at the EU level. The Estonian Presidency will continue to work on these issues and the Council will come back to the cross-border aspects of alcohol policy in December at the health ministers’ Council meeting in Brussels.
In addition to the discussion on alcohol policy, the ministers heard an introductory presentation of the new EU Action Plan for fighting the Antimicrobial Resistance (AMR) from the Commission. AMR is a growing threat that is responsible for 25 000 deaths and the loss of 1.5 billion euros in the EU every year. “We need to act now to preserve the effectiveness of antibiotics for the future,” said Minister Ossinovski. “The fight against the development and spread of resistant bacteria needs the close co-operation of several sectors, especially health, environment and agriculture. And the shared goals that are now set in the new EU Action Plan are also of great importance.”