22 October 2016
It is estimated that alcohol abuse costs the European Union about 155 billion euros a year in social and health costs. Photo: Alex Savard/Flickr
It is estimated that alcohol abuse costs the European Union about 155 billion euros a year in social and health costs. Photo: Alex Savard/Flickr

EU moving towards calorie counts on alcoholic drinks

Consumer advocates in the European Union are pushing for nutritional labeling on alcoholic drinks amid strong industry resistance.

The European Parliament took a first step last month when it called on the European Commission to draw up legislation requiring such labeling by 2016, French news agency AFP reported.

Adopted by 63 of the 68 members of the legislature’s committee on environment, public health and food safety, the resolution also calls for labels that highlight the dangers of alcohol for pregnant women and motorists.

“Consumers have a right to know that a glass of wine has the same number of calories as a slice of cake and that drinking while pregnant can harm your baby,” Glenis Willmott, a Labour member of the European Parliament from Britain, was quoted as saying.

“This isn’t about telling people what to do but giving them the information they need to make informed choices,” said Willmott, who steered the proposal through the committee after a first attempt failed in 2011, with what she said was heavy lobbying from the drinks industry.

Ilaria Passarani, an official with the European Consumer Organization advocacy group, said people need to know alcohol’s effect on their diet.

“Most of us know alcohol must be consumed in moderation. However, the scale of alcohol’s impact on our weight and health is far less obvious,” Passarani said.

“How many people know that an average half liter (around one pint) of 5 percent alcohol beer contains as many calories as a chocolate bar?” she asked.

The committee’s non-binding resolution is due to be voted on by the full parliament at the end of April.

In spite of “a north-south divide on the question and the sensitivities of French, Spanish and Italian winegrowers”, it might be adopted this time, a parliamentary source said.

For Britain and the Scandinavian countries, it is becoming imperative to curb binge drinking among the young, as well as to fight the increase in obesity, which is partly fueled by alcohol consumption.

The drinks industry is also facing consumers who are increasingly demanding transparency.

Spotting the trend, Carlsberg, Heineken, AB Inbev and SABMiller last month all backed a plan to voluntarily list the calorie count and other nutritional information of their beers, the news agency said.

The Brewers of Europe, a trade association representing more than 5,000 brewers, said the move will show that beer is not as fattening as some people think when compared to wine and spirits.

The group published a table comparing calories in 100 milliliters of various drinks: 245 calories for whisky, 82 for red wine and 46 for beer containing 4.5 percent or 5.5 percent alcohol — the same as for fresh orange juice.

Spirit makers, however, said the brewers’ move was misleading and also undermined messages about responsible drinking.

“While 100 ml is usually a fraction of the amount of beer a person might consume in one serving, it can equal three servings of spirits: the maximum daily recommendation for men and beyond what is recommended for women,” industry group SpiritsEurope said.

When he took up his post last October, EU Health Commissioner Vytenis Andriukaitis also called for ending the code of silence on the calorie count of alcohol.

“However, it seems there is resistance from some parts of the commission to any action on alcohol,” Willmott said.

Brussels estimates that alcohol abuse costs the European Union about 155 billion euros (US$164 billion) a year in social and health costs. Even if people consume less alcohol after the peak in the 1970s, Europeans remain the biggest drinkers in the world, according to the report.

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