Alcohol policy: Sweden censored, France exonerated

Related tags Public health Alcoholic beverages European union

The alcohol policies of two EU Member States have been the focus of
differing judgements this week. Both France and Sweden claim that
their policies are designed to protect public health - but this, it
seems, is only acceptable when it does not interfere with free

Sweden has this week incurred the wrath of the European Commission over its refusal to allow third party importers to bring alcoholic beverages into the country on behalf of private individuals - a stance which the authorities in Brussels believe contravenes the rules on the free movement of goods between Member States.

Under Swedish law, private individuals are allowed to bring alcoholic beverages into Sweden for their own use, if they themselves travel and bring the goods physically with them. However, if private individuals do not themselves physically transport the alcoholic beverages into Sweden, their only option is to request Systembolaget, the Swedish alcohol retail monopoly, to bring them in on their behalf, which is time consuming and expensive.

Consumers are prohibited from requesting other intermediaries to carry out the import on their behalf, even if they are prepared to pay the Swedish excise duties due, and it is this element to which the Commission objects.

An earlier request from the Commission back in October 2003 was rejected by the government in Stockholm, which maintains that the ban is in compliance with European law since it is both an integral and non-discriminatory part of the Swedish state's retail monopoly for alcoholic beverages and, perhaps more importantly, necessary for the protection of public health.

But the Commission disagrees, claiming that the ban does not, in fact, help public health and merely constitutes a barrier to trade. "The protection of public health can be achieved by other means that are less restrictive for trade between Member States, such as public information campaigns and checking the age of those buying alcoholic drinks,"​ the Commission said in a statement.

The European Court of Justice will now decide on the issue, and it will interesting to see whether it adopts a similar stance to the one it adopted on France's alcohol policy, also designed to curb excessive consumption.

The ECJ this week ruled that France was within its rights to impose a ban on alcohol advertising, even when that advertising was not directly taking place in France itself. The loi Evin​, the French law which governs adverts for tobacco and alcohol, states that no alcoholic beverage may be advertised on TV, and the French authorities have been vigorous in defending this position as part of an increasingly intractable stance on alcoholism.

This stance even includes taking measures to stop French TV companies from transmitting sporting events held in other countries if there is advertising for alcohol at those events, and this prompted two separate court cases against the Paris authorities.

The French arm of drinks giant Bacardi complained that football clubs outside France were refusing to grant it permission to advertise on pitch-side hoardings because of the risk that matches played there would not be transmitted in France - and that this constituted a barrier to trade. The Commission agreed and asked the ECJ to rule on the matter.

While the court agreed that such restrictions were illegal under EU rules, since they imposed too many obligations on broadcasters, sporting event organisers and advertisers, it also ruled that they were nonetheless justified on grounds of public health - fewer adverts, it argued, meant fewer alcohol consumption occasions.

In light of this ruling, Sweden may yet be allowed to keep its ban, but the question of how long 'public health' grounds can be used as a loophole in EU regulations is an altogether harder one to answer.

Certainly, alcohol consumption in France and Sweden is not noticeably lower than in other countries such as the UK, where alcohol ads are widespread, and there is dire need for some kind of definitive research to show a link between alcoholism, high prices and ad bans.

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