by Gerardo Fortuna and Marta Iraola
Ahead of a crucial European Parliament vote, the World Health Organisation (WHO) sent a letter to MEPs – obtained exclusively by Euractiv – expressing increasing concern about the state of play of the EU’s flagship Beating Cancer plan due to “scientifically inaccurate and worrisome” wording on alcohol use.
The letter was dated 3 November and was addressed to lawmakers in the European Parliament’s Environment Committee (ENVI), which is to vote on a set of amendments to a resolution on non-communicable diseases (NCDs) on Tuesday (7 November).
In Europe, non-communicable diseases such as cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, chronic respiratory diseases, and cancer account for 90% of all deaths and, in particular, 70% of all premature deaths.
In the summer, lawmakers sitting in the Parliament’s health sub-committee (SANT) started preparing the non-binding own-initiative report with recommendations to the European Commission, including on how to address all main risk factors contributing to NCDs.
With 560 amendments filed by MEPs back in September, a smaller number of compromise amendments agreed upon by political groups and the rapporteur on the file, the Danish liberal Erik Paulsen, will constitute the backbone of the resolution and have the highest possibility of being approved in the end by ENVI, which SANT’s ‘parent committee’.
“While I recognise that this document is of an advisory nature, I am troubled by the trend witnessed in the finalisation of th[is] crucial report,” wrote Hans Kluge, Europe’s regional director of the WHO, in the letter to lawmakers.
In particular, the attempt to water down the alcohol cancer risk in the compromise amendments by warning only against an alleged ‘harmful use’ was not well-digested by the United Nations specialised agency, which, at the beginning of 2023, released a position stating that no level of alcohol consumption is safe for our health.
“The terminology of ‘moderate and responsible drinking information’ or ‘harmful consumption of alcohol’ is scientifically inaccurate and worrisome in the context of cancer prevention,” the WHO letter reads.
In the final compromises document obtained by Euractiv, a reference to “alcohol consumption” was removed from paragraph 3 of the text, which included a list of factors and determinants that “substantially increase the risk of NCDs”.
The list enumerates other cancer risk factors such as tobacco use, unhealthy diets, and exposure to chemicals while maintaining only a mention of the “harmful use of alcohol.”
Likewise, another reference to “alcohol consumption”, originally included in paragraph 6 as “a risk factor for multiple NCDs”, was scrapped as well, indicating once again just the wording on ‘harmful use’.
Enough is enough
The fight against cancer has been a top priority for the Commission President Ursula von der Leyen in her five year mandate, and the flagship initiative of an EU Beating Cancer Plan was presented in February 2021.
Although considering the plan “both a timely and imperative initiative designed to enhance cancer prevention and care across Europe,” the WHO is worried about its implementation.
“I have been closely monitoring the implementation of the EU Beating Cancer Plan with increasing concern, noticing how the initial strong commitments in the document have slowly eroded in various documents,” WHO’s Kluge said in the letter.
The letter was followed by another unprecedented joint statement signed by Europe’s regional office of the WHO and its specialised cancer agency (IARC), publicly released the day before the vote (6 November).
In the public statement, the two UN agencies reiterated that “the contribution of alcohol consumption to cancer incidence and mortality should be clearly recognised without the use of any qualifiers or misleading adjectives such as ‘harmful’ or ‘heavy’ consumption of alcohol or ‘responsible drinking’.”
The WHO also complained about the disappearance from the compromise amendments of a reference to health warning labelling as a recommendation to the EU executive for improving the information to consumers.
“The removal of the European Commission’s commitment to introduce cancer-specific health warning labels in this resolution diverts the European effort from its ambitious trajectory of reducing the prevalence and incidence of cancer in the EU,” the letter stresses.
A Parliament’s ‘whodunit’
The removal of the ‘alcohol consumption’ reference is a parliamentary intrigue as in preliminary compromises initially agreed by the groups and the rapporteur, the wording “ alcohol consumption notably the harmful use of alcohol” was present.
“Although not very scientific”, it was accepted by MEPs working on the file “in a spirit of compromise”, a parliamentary source told Euractiv.
However, the “alcohol consumption notably” part was scrapped when groups’ negotiations were already over, according to the source, who pointed the finger at the push to the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) to keep the reference to ‘harmful use of alcohol’ only.
An EPP source who worked on the file did not confirm that their group was behind the disappearance but expressed satisfaction with the compromise amendments and the inclusion of the term ‘harmful use’.
The source explained that EPP’s main drive during the negotiations on the text was to favour a wording already used in the Parliament’s position on the Beating Cancer, which was considered a balanced blueprint to build up from.
Contacted by Euractiv, the rapporteur did not explain the reasons behind the removal of both ‘alcohol use’ and ‘health warning’ wording from the text by the date of publication of this article.
Back in October, organisations representing the EU wine sector, including the Comite Europeen des Entreprises Vins (CEEV) and EU farmers lobby Copa-Cogeca, sent a letter, seen by Euractiv, to the members of the SANT committee asking to maintain a “clear distinction between harmful use of alcohol and moderate/responsible consumption” in the report.
In another letter to the MEPs ahead of the vote, the European Association for the Study of the Liver (EASL) and the European Alcohol Policy Alliance (Eurocare) urged the MEPs to reject the compromise amendments since their wording “is misleading as it undermines the fact that there is no safe level of alcohol consumption.”
Organisations from civil society, including Eurocare, will distribute leaflets outside the room where MEPs will be voting on the file on Tuesday “condemning the alignment of some MEPs responsible for the report with arguments endorsed by the alcohol industry,” Eurocare secretary general Florence Berteletti told Euractiv.
*first published in: Euractiv.com