European Commission and Alcohol Policy

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Alcohol badge.jpg This article is part of the Spinwatch public health oriented Alcohol Portal project.


In his web essay, "Who Rules? Corporations", Val Burris writes that corporations "create and fund the think tanks and other research and advocacy organisations that shape the directions of public policy formation".[1] This relationship between the corporate organisations and the governing bodies is of particular interest, as it brings to light the impact globalisation has on the alcohol industry. This profile investigates the relationships between the World Health Organisation (WHO), Brewers of Europe, and Diageo. It highlights the influence and involvement of businesses on the creation and implementation of alcohol policy, as well as some of the broader issues concerning the industry's organisations.

The World Health Organisation

The WHO European Region is the region with the highest alcohol intake in the world Its per capita alcohol consumption is twice as high as the world average. Alcohol is the third largest risk factor for death and disability in Europe and the leading risk factor among young people. The disease burden from alcohol in the European Region is also twice as high as the world average.[2]

According to United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) statistics, western Europe is home to seven of the ten leading beer exporting countries, and accounts for 60% of the world’s beer exports. It is also the source of 76% of the world’s spirits exports and 83% of wine exports. Among the world’s leading alcohol producers, four of the five largest spirits producers (accounting for 37% of the world’s sales of globalized spirits brands) and two of the three largest beer producers (accounting for 12% of global beer sales) are based in Europe.[3]

One of the WHO's constitutional functions is to provide objective and reliable information in the field of human health. The WHO should achieve this through publications and programs which seek to help countries make policies that benefit public health. In relation to alcohol policy a framework was endorsed by the fifty-fifth session of the WHO Regional Committee for Europe in September 2005. The impact of alcohol was seen as a strong argument for taking effective action to prevent or reduce the impact of alcohol abuse on society as a whole[4]. In addition, each member state has not only the right but the obligation to provide a high level of protection for its citizens from alcohol related harm, particularly with regard to harm from others' drinking and harm to vulnerable groups such as children[5].

Although the WHO can advocate on the harm that alcohol does to the general population, it seems powerless to stop lobby groups and individual drinks manufacturers and producers from flooding markets with cheap alcohol, alcopops aimed at the youth market, and "sexed up" drinks packaging. The message of individual responsibility seems to be the common language of the drinks industry, which strongly opposes the social and scientific knowledge being raised by the WHO and the EU commission on alcohol policy.

The Executive Board

The Executive Board of the WHO consists of 34 individual members, all qualified in the field of health. They usually meet in both January and May every year - along with delegates from all other 193 member states - to determine policy and the distribution of the WHO's resources. The board is currently chaired Dr Balaji Sadasivan, who was elected at its 121st session in May 2007 and will hold office for one year. [6] One of The Executive Board's Medium-Term (2008-2013) Strategic Objectives is as follows: 'Number of Member States with a stabilized or reduced level of harmful use of alcohol. Target: 10% increase in number of Member States reporting a stabilized or reduced level by the end of 2013.' [7]


It is worthwhile to note that the World Health Organisation now receives more funding in the form of donations than it gets from its regular budget. The regular budget is the annual funding coming from all of the member states. Donations are referred to as EBF's (Extrabudgetary Funds), and come from various multinational companies, corporations and organisations. Vaughan et al (1995) write that "by the end of the 1992-93 biennium approximately 90 countries, 700 other public, private and voluntary sector bodies and nine UN agencies had contributed EBFs at some point to WHO since it was established in 1948".[8] Due to the level of financial contributions from the private sector, corporations have more influence over the creation of policy, which in turn can give them an advantage in the market.

European Commission

The European charter on alcohol, adopted by member states in 1995, sets out ethical principles and goals for promoting and protecting the health and wellbeing of all people in the region. The charter calls on all member states to draw up comprehensive alcohol policies and implement programs as appropriate in their differing cultures and social, legal and economic environments. "This can be done by implementing the principles in the Charter as aims of a 'national alcohol' law" [9].

On October 24 2006, the European commission adopted a communication setting out an EU strategy to support member states in reducing alcohol related harm. The main priorities were: to protect young people and children; reduce injuries and deaths from alcohol related road accidents; prevent harm among adults and reduce the negative impact on the economy; raise awareness of the impact of harmful alcohol consumption; and help gather reliable statistics[10]. Effectively, the European Alcohol and Health Forum was established as a common platform for action. The forum is scheduled to meet twice a year with membership coming from a range of economic operators, health agencies, alcohol awareness groups and the drinks industry. It was agreed to accept HORTEC with the British Beer and Pub Association as associated members, and Anheuser Busch as an associated member of the Brewers of Europe as members of the forum. As well as the brewers being represented, the European Spirits Organisation was represented by Bacardi Martini, Brown Forman, Diageo, Moet Henessy, Pernod Ricard SA, The Scotch Whisky Association and the V&S Group.

With such a large part of the forum coming from the drinks industry, it is able to influence much of the debate[11]. As such, in September 2007, the European Parliament rejected calls from its own Health Committee to introduce standardised EU-wide health warnings on alcoholic drinks, as is currently the case on tobacco products, in what some MEPs denounced as 'strong lobbying' from alcohol producers [12]. The European Spirits Organisation is one of a number of groups within the alcohol lobby who have voiced their concerns about the effectiveness of warning labels on bottles. The following statement makes their position clear; "The purpose of such statements is to advise consumers of potential risks of consuming alcoholic beverages in general or in specific circumstances. While there is little evidence to suggest that such labels or statements are successful in preventing alcohol-related harm, there is some evidence to support that such statements do remind consumers about the dangers of excessive consumption"[13]. In short, The European Spirits Organisation are reluctant to acknowledge their responsibility for highlighting the dangers of alcohol on their products. In fact, they wish to highlight more recent evidence of the benefits of moderate alcohol consumption, and that doctors, teachers and health agencies could convey more complete and balanced information on alcohol. [14].

Corporate Social Responsibility

When commenting on alcohol policy, WHO Representative, Dr Madga Robalo, said a well-articulated policy would include measures such as control, supply and demand to minimise alcohol-related harm and promote public health. However, she also said other factors such as level of production, political liberalisation and marketing also influenced consumption. She said one of the important factors to be discussed in terms of the policy was alcohol advertising by the industry: "While much research on the impact of alcohol marketing and advertising is not conclusive, increasing evidence can be found that exposure shapes positive perceptions of drinking and can increase heavier drinking... Therefore, it seems that restrictions on advertising and sponsorship should be part of a comprehensive alcohol policy, especially when it is targeted at young people." [15] She said the policy should include measures that educate the public on the dangers of alcohol use, interventions focussing on treating and punishing those who put their lives and others at risk.

Whilst corporate social responsibility is used by major corporations to instill a social trust that corporations will behave in a manner which is both acceptable and desirable, the main players in the alcohol lobby have laid the blame firmly in the hands of the individual user. Thus the public relations surrounding the alcohol lobby uses a myriad of measures and practices to protect sales of alcohol and maintain profit levels. In May 2004, the Portman group released an advertising campaign entitled 'Don't be the drunken Monkey,' presenting binge-drinking as undesirable and anti-social. The adverts showed an irresponsible young drinker as a chimpanzee. The idea behind this was to disassociate the correct use of alcohol from violent and anti-social behaviour, so as to discourage such behaviour, but this also served to protect the product itself from an association with such behaviour. "It shouldn't be left to drinks manufacturers to decide what messages are conveyed about the dangers of alcohol, because their priority will always be to sell alcoholic drinks to the public" (Lee Lixenburg, Alcohol Concern) [16]. One of the major concerns surrounding the drinks industry is in the sales of alcohol to under age drinkers. Alcopops provide the clearest indication that drinks may be being marketed to young people. Called FABs (flavoured alcoholic beverages) or RTDs ('ready-to-drinks') by the industry, these drinks specifically target young and inexperienced drinkers and are prominent amongst under-age and young people. Their penetration by age group in Britain across the industry is 42% amongst 25-34 year-olds, 60% amongst 20-24 year-olds, and 64% amongst 15-19 year-olds.21 They were innovated and rapidly expanded in the mid-1990s, designed not to taste very alcoholic so as to appeal to those not used to drinking and to those seeking to consume a large amount of alcohol in a short amount of time. As such they have been linked to binge-drinking.[17]. This information totally contradicts the the concerns of the WHO and the EU guidelines for trying to reduce the incidents of alcohol related anti-social behaviour, violent crime, accidents related to drink driving and higher incidents of disease related to alcohol abuse. For an example of the contradictions faced by a profit based association in the face of these WHO and EU guidelines (see Brewers of Europe).

As with all major corporations, drinks production costs and the costs of raw materials is of great importance. Over the past couple of years there has been an increasing awareness of 'fair trade' products being sold on our shelves. The idea is to give farmers and growers around the world a 'fair price' for their produce. This practice highlighted in Wallerstiens 'world systems theory' has been going on between 'core' and 'periphery' since the onset of colonialisation. However, multi-national corporations have, in their efforts to reach economies of scale, been able to keep prices at a level where the grower is producing goods with very little profit, or even running at a loss.

Relating corporate social responsibility into theories of globalization, theories of the international political economy (IPE) are helpful in explaining the rational behind the behavior of corporations and groups of corporations who amalgamate to have their interests heard in the institutions which will fulfill their quest to maximize profit. In the study of IPE the ‘rational choice’ strand, which has been dominant in the field in the United States, ignores personalities, ideologies and historical traditions which lie behind policies and institutions, and focuses on the incentive structure faced by those making decisions (Woods, 2001: 287).[18] Powerful groups will band together in the political arena, as it is ‘rational’ for them to do so, thus creating a greater incentive towards those with decision making powers. The unfortunate problem within the alcohol lobby is: How do we continue to promote a potentially very harmful product to a market which is under threat from potential outside regulation. The popular message from the alcohol lobby is, misfortune occurs only in the misuse of the product and not the product in itself, thus all social responsibility lies within the user. Furthermore, by using the language of corporate social responsibility the alcohol industry is able to: self regulate their own industry; fund advertising campaigns which are supposed to highlight the dangers of alcohol, yet always seem to get across the responsibility of the user rather than the danger of the product itself; and ultimately they are able to derail the policy making process. Corporate social responsibility would best be explained by the neo-Gramscian approach to the IPE. Neo-Gramscians see the world economy as “an over-arching structure of knowledge, ideas, and institutions which reflects the interests of the dominant actors and within which competition takes place”. This account of the IPE would explain the methods of the alcohol lobby as; controlling the public relations surrounding the issue and thus able to promote their ideas which will help persuade other actors that their best interests converge with those of the dominant powers (Woods, 2001: 288-289).[19].


This profile looks in depth at the interactions between the World Health Organisation, the Brewers of Europe and Diageo. We have seen that Diageo, the worlds largest alcohol organisation, has a major footing in the creation and the implementation of alcohol policy. We have seen that due to its economy of scale, Diageo has been able to maintain its involvement in an industry that in many ways causes harm and can in soem cases be the cause of death. From the Thalidomide Tragedy up to contemporary alcohol related health issues, it has relied upon a powerful public relations office to deflect detrimental press. This same public relations office is used to promote literature that is sympathetic to the cause, which is of course the growth of capital. Liasons with the EU and the WHO which are seen as being 'good' interactions are promoted, as is the idea of self regulation in the alcohol industry.


  1. Val Burris, "Who Rules? Corporations", An Internet Guide to Power Structure Research, 2007, accessed January 2009
  2. Eurocare Website Framework for Alcohol Policy in the WHO European Region accessed 25/02/08
  3. David Jernigan, "Global Ramifications of European Alcohol Policies", Addiction, Vol. 97, No. 6, published online 28 May 2002, pp. 615-617, accessed January 2009
  4. "Framework for alcohol policy in the WHO European region", WHO Europe, 2006, accessed January 2009
  5. "Framework for alcohol policy in the WHO European region", WHO Europe, 2006, accessed January 2009
  6. WHO - The Executive Board Accessed 20/03/08
  7. WHO Strategic Objectives Accessed 20/03/08
  8. J. Patrick Vaughan et al., "Financing the World Health Organisation: global importance of extrabudgetary funds", Health Policy, Vol. 35, No. 3, March 1996, pp. 229-245, accessed January 2009
  9. WHO Europe, 2006: 7 [1]
  10. European Commission:]
  11. The Charter Establishing The European Alcohol and Health Forum [2]
  12. [3]
  13. The European spirits organisation[4]
  14. The European spirits organisation[5]
  15. WHO on Namibia Namibia Govt Crafts Alcohol Policy accessed 11/03/08
  16. Annie Kelly,The Guardian, 28.05.04 [,,1227048,00.html]
  17. Julia Finch, The Guardian, 09.10.04, [,,1323368,00.html]
  18. [Woods, N. (2001) International Political Economy in Baylis, J. and Smith, S. (eds) The Globalization of World Politics (Oxford: Oxford University Press)]
  19. [Woods, N. (2001) Baylis, J. and Smith, S. The Globalization of World Politics (Oxford: Oxford University Press)]