EC powerless to push Scottish age limit proposals

By Neil Merrett

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Alcohol Drinking culture European union

As Scotland moves a step nearer to potentially adopting new proposals on raising the legal drinking age at off-trade retail outlets, the European Union says it cannot impose similar mandatory regulation across the bloc.

Alex Salmond, Scotland’s first minister, this week announced his government would look to implement reforms to current drink policy, which could include raising the legal drinking age in the country to 21 at shops.

The move, which could come as part of an ongoing consultation with beverage industry stockholders ending next week, has raised scorn from some manufacturers, who claim that self-regulation remains a more viable strategy.

European stance

However, the European Commission, which is itself hoping to spearhead drives to cut down on irresponsible drinking across the bloc, says that while strictly enforced drink age limits were proven to help curb alcohol misuse, it was not able to push other members to take up the proposals.

“The EU, and more precisely the Commission, can greet or support EU countries that decide to raise the age limit for alcohol consumption, but it cannot propose anything like that to all member states,”​ the spokesperson stated.

Industry concern

On a Scottish level alone, a number of alcohol manufacturers and organisations like the have hit out at the drink age proposals. The UK-based Wine and Spirit Trade Association (WSTA) claims that authorities in the country are not doing enough to enforce existing laws on alcohol.

"Today the Scottish government demonstrated its refusal to listen to the Scottish people in pursuing its nonsensical policy of raising the purchasing age to 21,”​ stated WSTA chief executive Jeremy Beadles. “Instead of actually enforcing the laws available to tackle problems associated with alcohol misuse, the Scottish National Party (SNP) has decided that headlines are more important than progress.”

Beadles claimed that the government’s aims to cut alcohol by focusing on younger drinkers was misplaced and that a greater police presence on Scotland’s streets would provide more effective protection.

“In Scotland in 2006/7, there were only 131 recorded offences for buying alcohol under age; but action was only taken against 7 of whom 2 were admonished and only 5 received a fine,”​ he stated. “In the same year there were only 13 recorded offences where the police confiscated alcohol from a person under the age of 18.”

Diageo View

Multinational drinks group Diageo, which produces many leading beer and spirits brands including Guinness and Smirnoff, said it too was opposed to raising the drinking age in Scotland and instead hoped to establish a new cooperation between industry and the government.

The manufacturer said that in its view, raising the drink age to 21 would be a disproportionate and unfair means of cutting underage drinking and would penalise the majority of young people between 18 and 21 that did drink responsibly.

Diageo said that it instead would prefer to see better education among young people to help change perceptions of alcohol in the country.

Benet Slay, managing director of Diageo’s British operations, said that he was frustrated by the Scottish Government’s suggestions on reducing alcohol.

“We believe the most effective approach to promoting the highest standards of responsible behaviour, across industry and for every consumer, is through a fair, transparent and effective system of co-regulation,”​ he stated.

Alcohol fears

Some health experts remain sceptical over the success of self-regulation from both retailers and manufacturers, with recent findings by UK-based charity Alcohol Concern adding to calls for tighter restrictions on how drink groups sell their products.

While looking at the current market place, Alcohol Concern chief executive Don Shenker, said in July that the industry's claims of promoting responsible drinking is undermined by some retail outlets selling cut-price alcohol and not upholding age limits.

New proposals

The report identifies a number of areas it believes should be considered by the UK government as part of any potential overhaul.

In terms of the recommendations, Alcohol Concern calls for a new independent watchdog body operated with the support of more than one government department, as is the case with the Food Standards Agency (FSA).

Besides encouraging industry-wide standards for the sales of alcohol, the charity also called for the possibility of using sanctions to back up its work.

Ongoing debate

Andrew McNeill, honorary secretary for the alcohol policy group Eurocare, told earlier this year about wider concerns amongst some health groups over current regulation within the alcohol industry.

Despite the work of some industry-led responsibility initiatives like the UK-based Portman group, which limits what imagery and messages can be used in drink advertising, McNeill believes there is doubt whether the industry can effectively have a role in its own regulation.

"One difficulty for the industry is that it is hard to persuade health care groups that it will voluntarily work to its own detriment,"​ he said.

McNeill added that debate over the effectiveness of industry led responsible messages and self-regulation was likely to rage on as a key issue of the European Commission's (EC) Alcohol Health Forum.

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