Bloomberg — New health warnings by Ireland set to be the world’s strictest on beer, wine and spirits have sparked alarm from alcohol-producing countries that argue the labels would impose an obstacle to trade.
The US and Mexico have raised concerns over the legislation ahead of World Trade Organization committee meetings this week. Argentina, Australia, Chile, Cuba and New Zealand have also expressed reservations about the law, which Ireland passed last month. While the European Commission gave Ireland the green light, at least nine wine- and beer-producing member countries opposed the measure.
The labels, which go into effect in 2026, will highlight the risk of liver disease, cancer and the risk of drinking while pregnant in big red letters on every container of alcoholic beverages. The level of unease among alcohol producers reflects concerns that they could be targeted like the cigarette industry, where warnings have evolved into graphic pictures of tobacco-related diseases.
Canada last month unveiled a requirement for health warnings to be printed on every individual cigarette.
Coldiretti, Italy’s largest farmers association, said Ireland’s planned alcohol labels are “alarmist” and set a “dangerous precedent.” The European Committee of Wine Companies said that the warnings create an “unjustified and disproportionate barrier to trade.”
Irish Health Minister Stephen Donnelly is unrepentant on the warnings.
“The vast majority of people are not aware of these risks,” he told national broadcaster RTÉ. “If the industry is saying, ‘will you not just wait a little bit longer,’ the answer is a flat no.”
Ireland ranked 20th out of 48 countries for alcohol consumption, as measured by the OECD based on preliminary 2021 data. In 2019, almost one in every 20 deaths was attributable to alcohol, while light to moderate drinking levels caused almost 23,000 new cancer cases in 2017, according to the Department of Health.
The European Commission assessed the legislation over the past year and didn’t raise an objection because Ireland showed that the public health objectives justify the law, according to a spokesperson for the Brussels-based body. The commission deemed that the impact on the EU single market wasn’t significant enough to be a concern.
In February, nine countries including France, Italy and Spain had sent the European Commission a letter asking that the European Commission check the legality of Ireland’s law.
“It creates a harmful precedent for the free movement of products in the various member states of the European Union,” the nine countries said in the letter, obtained by Bloomberg News. The other nations were Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Greece, Slovakia, Portugal and Hungary.
To make it easier for the industry, Ireland will allow the warnings to be made via stickers. The law also requires a crossed-out image of a pregnant woman drinking as well as information on how many calories and how much alcohol the beverage contains.
Ireland has a reputation for being a trailblazer in health issues. In 2004, the country became the first to ban smoking in workplaces, bars and restaurants. The move was highly controversial at the time, but has been followed across Europe and in many other countries.
Many alcohol industry players, such as the European Committee of Wine Companies, argue that the warnings fail to distinguish between alcohol abuse and moderate consumption.
There is no safe amount of alcohol consumption that does not affect health, however, according to the World Health Organization. Alcohol causes at least seven types of cancer, including the most common cancer types, such as bowel cancer and female breast cancer, according to the agency.
Frank Murray, a consultant hepatologist and chairman of Alcohol Action Ireland, said the evidence linking alcohol to cancer, drinking during pregnancy and liver damage is clear.
“That’s really important because they are three unquestionable harms that alcohol causes,” he said.
The WTO set a strong precedent in 2018, when the trade body’s dispute settlement arm upheld Australia’s right to impose plain-package label restrictions on the sale of tobacco products — something that was sharply opposed by the cigarette industry.
At the time, Philip Morris International Inc. and Japan Tobacco Inc. warned that such rules could set a precedent for other countries to implement new labeling rules for alcohol.
The British Medical Journal once described Ireland’s smoke-free pubs and workplaces as a “runaway success.” Whether its world-first alcohol labeling works as well remains to be seen.
“I would be reasonably confident that in years to come, you’re going to see people following Ireland’s lead, just as they did in tobacco,” Health Minister Donnelly said. “This is going to be the norm.”
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