Thursday, November 30, 2006

Prague- The argument that "beer is good for you" was cited Wednesday as one of the Czech Republic's main reasons for vetoing a plan to boost the minimum tax on alcohol in the European Union. Czech business and government leaders also cited a cultural attachment to brewery products in many parts of Europe including their country - the world's largest per-capita beer consumer - and the tax plan's alleged bias toward European wine-drinkers.

Beer "is food, not a drug," said Jaroslav Camplik, president of the Czech Grocers Chamber (PK).

Camplik echoed the words of Minister of Finance Vlastimil Tlusty, who announced the veto of the European Commission's proposed 4.5 per cent minimum tax on alcohol, which would add less than 5 US cents to the price of a half-litre glass at a Czech pub.

"We Czechs believe that beer is a food component," Tlusty said Tuesday in Brussels.

Prague's challenge, which has forced EU commissioners to re-examine plans for alcohol-tax reform, was also built on Czech medical research that found a link between moderate beer-drinking and good health.

For example, one recent study - financed by Czech breweries - concluded that two beers a day can reduce heart-attack risks.

Jan Vesely, head of the Czech Federation of Breweries and Malt Houses, said numerous medical experts have noted that "in contrast to cigarettes, a small amount of alcohol is healthy."

Another reason given for the tax veto is that beer plays a key role in the culture of the Czech Republic, where scores of family breweries and several giant beer-makers satisfy an average, annual demand of nearly 160 litres per person.

"If it can be emphasized that wine in actually a culture, not alcohol, the same can apply to beer in the case of Czechs," said PK Director Miroslav Koberna.

The tax plan "clearly corresponds to a lack of understanding in the European Commission for the historical and regional tradition of a particular country," he said.

Koberna and Tlusty also argued that Brussels' tax policy should not favour vintners and wine-drinkers in countries such France over citizens of other EU countries where brewers and beer-drinkers predominate.

"It's not just about a tax increase but primarily about favouring wine at the expense of beer in the entire European Union," Tlusty said. "Clearly, there is competition between wine and beer."

Vesely said the tax would hurt the Czech beer industry, which is now expanding mainly due to rising exports, while giving preferential treatment to France, Italy and other wine-producing countries.

Czechs also argued that a tax hike would encourage beer bootlegging, but would not deter alcohol abuse.

The Czech Republic has been battling the proposed beer tax for months, rejecting even the Finnish offer to slash the proposed tax rate to 4.5 per cent from the original 31 per cent.

© 2006 dpa German Press Agency

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