Prepared Foods of March 7, 2005 enewsletter

The European Union's (EU) health chief has offered the drinks industry a stark choice: put your house in order and stop marketing products, including "alcopops," to young drinkers, or it will be done for you.

Markos Kyprianou, the EU commissioner for health and consumer protection, also expressed concern that the scourge of binge-drinking is spreading across Europe.

Kyprianou, a Cypriot who admits to liking the odd drink himself as well as a weakness for ice cream, said his instincts were to allow adult Europeans to make "informed choices" about their diets and health.

However, with vulnerable groups like children and the young, he said, industry would be given a chance to self-regulate; then, if that failed, action would follow.

The map of Europe has traditionally been divided between northern beer and spirits nations and southern, wine-drinking regions, where alcohol was consumed only with meals or with family and friends.

Such geographical divides are breaking down, said Kyprianou, complaining that binge drinking was now "everywhere."

In moderation, alcohol does no harm, said Kyprianou. "This is good and bad. It is good in one sense because you don't have to ban anything. It's bad in the sense that it's more complicated how you regulate it."

Kyprianou undoubtedly has teeth to bare, should he tire of waiting for the industry to act.

The European Commission will enforce a total ban this year on cross-border advertising of tobacco within the EU, a ban that includes sponsorship of Formula One racing cars.

Asked if he would consider similar bans on beer companies sponsoring sports teams, Kyprianou replied, "Those would be the issues we will explore."

One issue on the table is "alcopops," sweet, fizzy bottled drinks (better known as flavored alcoholic beverages or malternatives) that critics believe are aimed squarely at young drinkers.

Kyprianou was clear in his regard for these beverages: "We believe this is a product that encourages young people to drink. The industry does not agree. That's something we must discuss."

Research is continuing, and industry had better be ready to listen, he indicated. "If it's proved that the main market for these products is the younger crowd, then something has to be done about it," he said.

However, Quentin Rappaport, director of the Wine and Spirit Association, said another layer of bureaucracy from Brussels was not needed. Self-regulation worked well in Britain.

The threat of "alcopops" was exaggerated, not least as sales have plummeted in the face of tax hikes in Britain two years ago, he said. "I don't believe they are more dangerous than vodka and orange. If you tax them out of existence, you'll have people turning to some other product," said Rappaport.

Industry officials were defiant over claims that binge-drinking was on the rise across the EU, though they admitted slight increases in Italy and Portugal and growing concerns in eastern European states.

Carole Brigaudeau, for the Amsterdam Group, a pan-European research body funded by the drinks industry, said alcopops were drunk by those aged 18 to 25 years "and that's legal."