EU presidency discussions consider policy for alcohol labeling

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26 July 2017 --- Estonia intends to address cross-border alcohol policy issues, including the labeling of alcoholic beverages, as one of the priorities of its presidency of the EU. The labeling issue is an important part of its goal to reduce alcohol-related harm in Europe, according to World Health Organization (WHO) Europe.

On 21 July, WHO/Europe prepared a report as a discussion document in advance of the recent informal meeting of ministries of health in Tallinn, Estonia. The report presents an overview of the evidence and the policy options available for placing warning and product labels on alcoholic beverage containers.

“It is the right of consumers to make informed choices about the products they purchase, and it is the obligation of public institutions to ensure consumers are able to do so. Labels could be considered as part of a comprehensive strategy to provide information and educate consumers to prevent and reduce alcohol-related harm,” the discussion document reads.

Two options for action to reduce the negative consequences of drinking and alcohol intoxication are the introduction of warning or information labels on alcoholic beverage containers, and product labeling similar to that used for foodstuffs (including alcohol and calorie content, additives and allergens.) They come from the European action plan to reduce the harmful use of alcohol from 2012 to 2020.

Such labeling helps to raise awareness of alcohol-related harm and ensure that consumers have access to complete information on product content and composition to protect their health and interests. The WHO/Europe discussion document provides evidence and arguments for making alcoholic beverages adhere to the same requirements as those for food products.

The document makes an argument for labeling by stating that “there is broad consensus in the literature that this information may improve knowledge, raise awareness and prompt discussion of the harmful health consequences of alcohol” and that “no negative effects have been demonstrated.” 

Evidence of the relatively low effectiveness of labeling on drinking behavior reported by researchers is said to seem to be mainly due to certain features of the current presentation of the information. These features are said to include weak textual content, poor visibility and lack of pictures that illustrate the consequences of alcohol misuse.

The most recent available data for the WHO European Region, collected in 2016, show that labeling is not required in the majority of member states. Thirteen member states reported that health warning labels are mandatory on containers or bottles of alcoholic beverages nationally. Between 13 and 15 member states, depending on beverage type, require that consumer information about calories, additives, vitamins and microelements be displayed on labels.

Alcoholic beverages have “benefited from special treatment” by being “exempted from international conventions that govern all other psychoactive substances and from key food legislation that requires labeling of ingredients and nutritional information,” according to the document. It also points to studies from the UK that found that a voluntary pledge by industry to provide information on the calorie content of alcohol did not lead to such information being provided to consumers in any significant way.

The European Consumer Organization and the WHO have long been calling for “mandatory content and nutritional labeling and health messages” because “citizens should feel confident that the food regulatory system, which is designed to protect their health and safety, operates effectively,” the document concludes. It adds that governments are the most ideally positioned groups to label products in order to promote healthy habits.

Alcohol’s dangers have been in the news worldwide recently. Researchers at the University of Buffalo Research Institute on Addiction discovered why prenatal alcohol exposure increases the likelihood of addiction. Meanwhile, drinking alcohol in late teenage years has been found to be harmful to bone growth.   

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