A loophole in the EU’s Audiovisual Media Services Directive (AVMSD) could undermine EU countries’ efforts to impose stricter rules on alcohol advertising, threatening a key objective of the EU’s Beating Cancer Plan.
One of the aims of the EU Beating Cancer Plan is to reduce alcohol consumption amongst young people by limiting their exposure to online marketing of alcoholic beverages, a goal the plan aims to achieve via monitoring the implementation of the Audiovisual Media Service Directive.
However, a recent report from the World Health Organization (WHO) about the regulation of cross-border alcohol marketing points to some holes and weaknesses in the AVMSD, which could be undermining the efforts of the countries that want stricter rules.
The ‘country of origin’ loophole
The ‘country of origin principle’ is the “cornerstone” of the AVMSD, a European Commission spokesperson told EURACTIV.
This principle is found in AVMSD’s article 3(1), which states that EU countries must ensure “freedom of reception and shall not restrict retransmissions on their territory of audiovisual media services from the other member states.”
However, the WHO report highlights how it gives opportunities to circumvent stricter national laws, by broadcasting from a different jurisdiction.
Sweden is a case in point. For years, the principle allowed two broadcasting companies based in the UK – but broadcasting in Swedish, to Sweden – to disseminate advertising that, had it been produced on Swedish soil, would not get past the Nordic country’s tougher regulations on alcohol marketing.
The Commission decided in 2018 that Sweden could not take legal action against the broadcasting companies, rejecting the claim that the broadcasters had strategically established themselves in the UK in order to circumvent the stricter Swedish alcohol advertising rules.
When asked about the issue by EURACTIV, a Commission spokesperson praised the country of origin rule for having “ensured freedom of reception and cross-border retransmission of audiovisual media services within the EU” which “has benefitted EU companies and consumers.”
No revisions in sight
In the Swedish case, following the UK’s exit from the EU, the broadcasters were forced to move back to Sweden.
However, the loophole is still there, and the Commission is not planning to make any revisions in the near future.
“At this stage, the priority of the Commission is to ensure that all member states complete the transposition of the AVMSD into national law, as well as to perform a thorough assessment of how the new rules have been implemented in the member states,” the spokesperson said, referring to recent amendments of the directive. “Therefore, it is too early to discuss a possible future revision of the AVMSD.”
The AVMSD has its own rules about making sure adverts for alcoholic drinks are not aimed at minors. It states that it encourages the development of co-regulation and self-regulation of “inappropriate audiovisual commercial communications for alcoholic beverages” – so-called ‘codes of conduct’ – adding that all television advertising of alcohol must also comply with certain basic principles, including not “present[ing] abstinence or moderation in a negative light.”
According to the WHO report, however, these standards have been under criticism for both their lack of detail and narrow focus on restricting advertising aimed at minors. This “misses the issue of alcohol marketing which is not aimed at minors but nevertheless is attractive to them and likely to influence them,” the report reads.
“The AVMSD has strengthened the provisions to effectively reduce the exposure of children and minors to audiovisual commercial communications for alcoholic beverages, and as a result, it is bringing significant benefits thanks to the new rules themselves, the extension of the new rules and by encouraging the adoption of codes of conduct,” said the spokesperson.
[Edited by Gerardo Fortuna/Nathalie Weatherald]