Consumer protection is a critical dimension for global health action to protect against risks and threats to health that are beyond the control of citizens, wherever they may live or travel. In today’s globalized economy, addressing consumer safety in Europe involves addressing manufacturing and production standards worldwide. It is also a test of international cooperation and solidarity as unhealthy and unsustainable consumption patterns spread from rich to poor economies. Consumer protection policy provides an example of global health action in the sphere of global governance interdependence.
In an interdependent world, the mobility of goods, services and people requires new forms of protection. Up until spring 2008, public health and consumer protection were part of the same portfolio and the responsibility of a single commissioner in the European Commission. Today, there is one commissioner for public health and one for consumer affairs. While this has significantly raised the profile of consumer protection policy, these two related policy fields remain together under the same directorate-general, signalling their joint importance and substantial interrelation. So many public health issues are directly linked to easily accessible products in the global marketplace: food, drink, tobacco, alcohol, healthcare products, to name but a few. The 2005 communication from the Commission entitled ‘Healthier, safer, more confident citizens’ brought together the policies and programmes under a common framework for public health and consumer protection.
This framework must also take into account the relationship between health, consumer protection and other policies. The approach of the European Union to consumer affairs takes into account the role of the modern citizen in health and the importance of the market in either endangering or supporting health. It is also an example of the interface between global health and the foreign policy of the EU and its member states as it recognizes the increasing importance of the trans-border and global dimensions of health and safety, and highlights the need to integrate health and consumer concerns into other European policies. Finally, it is explicit about empowering consumers through better information. The health and consumer protection strategy states: “Consumer and health organisations need active, expert and articulate voices” and gives clear indications on how the Commission will support such organizations. They also need access to clear evidence-based information.
The EU has the potential to provide a global model for consumer health and safety. The processes of European integration have provided Europe with a wealth of experience in harmonizing consumer safety and rights policies. These lessons should be used to inform other areas where regional integration is taking place. Similarly, the EU-USA-China trilateral high-level meetings on consumer safety could be a model for other similar initiatives.
More on Consumer Protection and Global Health
The common framework for public health and consumer protection 2007-2013: has three interlinked core objectives:
- To protect citizens from risks and threats, which are beyond the control of individuals and cannot be effectively tackled by Member States alone (e.g. health threats, unsafe products, unfair commercial practices).
- To enhance the ability of citizens to take better decisions about their health and consumer interest.
- To mainstream health and consumer policy objectives across all EU policies in order to put health and consumer issues at the centre of policymaking.
The Commission paper clearly maps out actions that need to be taken in relation to consumer protection in the Internal Market by “ensuring a common high level of protection for all EU consumers, wherever they live, travel to or buy from in the EU, from risks and threats to their safety and economic interests.” This includes:
- Better understanding of consumers and markets
- Better consumer protection regulation
- Better enforcement, monitoring and redress
- Better informed and educated consumers
Empowering consumers with better information:
Such an approach reflects the many issues that also arise as consumer concerns in global health. The EU policy proposal is a breakthrough that recognises this connection in the face of the tobacco, alcohol and obesity epidemics. Policies must aim to empower consumers to make informed healthy choices in ways that have not been considered before. Within Europe, consumers are active in assessing not only products that could endanger their own health or that of others; they are increasingly interested in quality comparisons within the field of healthcare itself as cross-border patient mobility increases. Newspapers and journals have developed report cards and rankings on health services and systems in order to provide the consumer with better information for informed choice and action. For example, the Euro Health Consumer Index (EHCI) ranks the national health care systems across the EU in areas that are important to the consumer-patients’ rights and information, waiting times for common treatments, care outcomes, customer-friendliness and access to medication. The Index is compiled from a combination of public statistics and independent research.
The need for Evidence-based consumer health information is gaining increasing importance within the European context and abroad. Whereas further research into product safety, such as studies into non-acute hazards resulting from the exposure to substances through the use of consumer products is needed, complimentary research on consumer behaviour is also needed. Internationally there is a necessity for improved data on product use patterns in order to accurately understand risks to consumers. The Seventh Framework Programme for Research and Technology Development takes this need into consideration thereby demonstrating the multisectoral nature of the issue.
Health consumer protection and other policies:
Another example of the interface between health, consumer protection and third policy fields can be found in the external relations policy of the EU. New challenges have emerged as the BRIC countries have become global producers, as evidenced by recent tragedies involving toxic toys and contaminated milk products. Furthermore, new studies show a rise in the proliferation of hazardous counterfeit products. Though typically associated with hand-bags and DVDs, counterfeit and substandard pharmaceutical and sanitary products are a significant and real threat to consumer health and safety in Europe. For example, in its annual report for 2007, the Belgian Multi-disciplinary Hormones Unit reported a sharp rise in seizures of fake pharmaceuticals in Belgium. Likewise The Guardian recently reports of the millions of Pound Sterling worth of counterfeit psychiatric, heart disease and cancer medicines confiscated in the UK in 2008. Though on the one hand these examples demonstrate the successful efforts of the state to protect patients and consumers alike, it also serves as an indication of problems that may be present in or spreading to other parts of Europe.
EU-USA-China trilateral high level meetings on consumer safety:
Addressing such issues requires international cooperation. In December 2008, Europe hosted the first high-level summit on product safety and entered into a tri-lateral agreement on consumer product safety compliance with China and the US. Furthermore, a whole new set of challenges to consumer health and protection are becoming apparent as large populations in emerging economies become global consumers. Consumption patterns which have proven unsustainable in the old industrial economies are now spreading to the new ones. Recent studies showed that China has overtaken the US in the consumption of basic agricultural and industrial goods. Developed and developing economies must work together to protect citizens from unhealthy products and consumer lifestyles. While obesity has already reached epidemic proportions in Europe and North America, it is becoming more and more prevalent in places such as China. The worldwide rise in tobacco and alcohol consumption is also alarming. As put forward in a speech on obesity by former health and consumer affairs Commissioner David Byrne to the European Parliament there is the need for a co-ordinated multisectoral and population wide approach to address these issues.