Guinness and friends toast benefits of Euro-booze: The industry fears a mission to curb EC drinkers, writes Leonard Doyle

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The Independent Online
THE BENEFITS of booze are being toasted by the European drinks industry, which is fearful of the sobering effect Scandinavia could have on the European Community.

Sweden, Finland and Norway, which all have vigilant temperance movements and strict anti-drinking policies, are due to join the EC by 1995 and may seek to curb the number of Euro-drinkers. Public opinion in these countries is already concerned that the EC's open-borders policy will flood Scandinavia with cheap liquor.

Furthermore, the Maastricht Treaty will give EC health ministers new powers to curb advertising for alcohol if they feel it could improve health in the Community.

To head off such moves, the drinks industry has produced and distributed widely a four-volume, boxed and bound report, Alcoholic Beverages and European Society. The report celebrates the heady sums generated by drink and drinkers but ignores the heavy price Europe pays for its lager louts, wine imbibers and Scotch drinkers.

The EC spends almost pounds 2bn a year subsidising alcohol production and exports - some 2,000 times more than it spends on alcohol-prevention and education programmes - and the drinks industry naturally wants to see that pattern maintained. But under Maastricht, health ministers will have the power to co-ordinate EC health policy, while the Scandinavians are already voicing concerns about alcohol consumption.

The huge EC subsidies to the drinks trade take the form of millions of pounds in payments to low-quality wine producers to distil their produce, often undrinkable, into ethanol. Other hefty payments go to Scottish whisky producers in the form of export subsidies and to the makers of Irish cream liqueurs - these count as 'dairy produce' and are entitled to help with exports outside the EC.

The drinks industry report was coordinated by Guinness Plc and underwritten by, among others, Carlsberg, Moet Hennessy, Martini & Rossi, Pernod Ricard, Seagram, Whitbread and Becks. It points out that the alcoholic-drinks industry is worth pounds 95bn a year to the Community - an unsurprising figure given that some 225 million people, or 85 per cent of EC adults, are regular tipplers.

Per capita, Europeans consume 42 litres of wine per year, 81 litres of beer and 5.6 litres of spirits.

Britons are drunk under the table by the citizens of France, Germany, Spain and Belgium.

The industry produces a pounds 4bn trade surplus and it raises pounds 36bn in taxes, an amount the report points out is almost equal to the entire EC budget. What the report ignores are the massive subsidies given to alcohol producers. They take the form of payments in excess of pounds 1bn a year to mostly French and Italian producers of unpalatable wines. Another pounds 75m is spent subsidising exports outside the EC of Scotch whisky made from grain already subsidised for export. Some pounds 4m is given back to beer, wine and spirits producers who sweeten their products with sugar for the same sorts of reasons, while another pounds 7.5m is spent subsidising the exports of various Irish dairy-cream liqueurs.

The EC spends only pounds 750,000 throughout the Community on education, prevention and treatment of alcohol abuse. While the subsidies to alcohol producers are handled from Brussels, the alcohol prevention programmes are co-ordinated from a small office in Luxembourg.

The industry report, which is littered with statistics demonstrating the benefits of Europe's ancient drinking culture, is almost silent on the havoc that heavy drinkers and alcoholics wreak on society through motor accidents, domestic violence, broken homes and lost productivity.

Economists in Britain and elsewhere calculate that alcohol abuse can cost society between 2 and 3 per cent of gross national product when account is taken of social costs to industry, health-service costs, road accidents and extra police work. The report says, however, that 'it is not possible to identify the extent of irresponsible use and sensible use of alcoholic drinks'. It concludes: 'There is no scientific evidence showing that a policy of reducing excessive alcohol consumption by decreasing average consumption works.'

A forthcoming report by the World Health Organisation challenges this view and says the best way to prevent heavy drinking in society is by reducing the overall levels of consumption. 'As you increase the price of alcohol the number of heavy drinkers goes down. We think it's obvious,' a WHO official commented yesterday.

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