However, the Lords’ committee submission to the debate over a new European Union Alcohol Strategy has been criticised as being based on out-of-date or unreliable evidence.
In the report, published today, the Lords claim that the most recent EU Alcohol Strategy – which ran from 2006 to 2012 - achieved little and that the EU should take a more proactive approach to cracking down on alcohol-related harm.
It says this should include an overhaul of the current EU alcohol taxation regime, which prevents member states from raising duties on “the most harmful substances. The Lords committee recommends implementing a variable tax rate for wines and cider in line with alcoholic strength and to give an incentive to the manufacture of lower-strength beers.
On minimum unit pricing, Baroness Usha Prashar, chair of the Lords committee, said: “It is a highly controversial topic, views are sharply divided, and no Member State currently has a MUP law. In 2012 the Scottish Government, however, decided to introduce MUP, and the UK Government undertook to do the same.
“Our view is that if MUP proves successful in bringing health benefits to the heaviest drinkers in Scotland, the UK Government should honour the commitment it gave in 2012 and follow suit.”
On the Public Health Responsibility Deal, part of which has seen the drinks industry make voluntary pledges to reduce the number of alcoholic units in the market and improve the labelling on products, the report called for binding action.
It wants alcoholic drinks labels to include, as a minimum, the strength, the calorie content, guidelines on safe drinking levels, and a warning about the dangers of drinking when pregnant.
Baroness Prashar said: “During our inquiry we heard from manufacturers, retailers and advertisers about the voluntary initiatives they have developed to tackle the harm caused by alcohol abuse. Voluntary action alone is not enough. It must be backed by legislation at EU level, and industry should play a constructive role in bringing this about. “
Kate Nicholls, chief executive of the Association of Licensed Multiple Retailers, described the Lords report as a timely intervention into the debate over whether the EU should have a role in shaping public health policy. However, she disagreed with many of the interventions recommended and warned that much of the evidence was unsound.
She said: “This report highlights a very serious weakness in the current debate about alcohol – namely the lack of a robust, reliable and up to date evidence base to underpin policy making. What evidence is available is often out of date or partial with significant gaps or differences of approach undermining its credibility – as a result, it is often open to interpretation and results in a polarised debate rather than one which allows us address of even identify the real problems.
Brigid Simmonds, chief executive of the British Beer & Pub Association, said: “EU taxation rules should not hamper member states wishing to encourage consumers towards lower-strength drinks, and we welcome the Committee’s focus on this. We would support a review of the rules to allow for greater flexibility for member states to reduce taxation on lower-strength products, such as beer.
“On labelling, we believe that voluntary commitments have delivered, as the brewing industry already has a good track record. Ninety per cent of product labels already include a pregnancy warning, and the vast majority also give information on alcohol unit labelling and UK Government lower-risk drinking guidelines.”
Miles Beale, chief executive of the Wine & Spirit Trade Association, said: “It is disappointing that the report fails to give sufficient prominence to the significant and well recognised achievements in reducing alcohol harm here in the UK. The work the UK alcoholic drinks industry has gone further and achieved more than in the vast majority of other member states.
“In particular, its recommendations ignore the fantastic progress of the Responsibility Deal labelling pledge, which has seen pregnancy warnings, unit information and safer drinking guidelines placed voluntarily on 80% of alcohol labels.”
A Department of Health spokesperson said: "We are committed to reducing the harm of alcohol in the UK and any changes to EU policy to support this are to be welcomed. We are working to encourage people to drink responsibly. We've banned the lowest priced drinks, irresponsible promotions in pubs and clubs and are continuing to drive up UK standards through flagship schemes such as Challenge 25 and Best Bar None. We've also removed over a billion units of alcohol from the market in under two years by working with industry."