Recent alcohol advertisements are carrying an industry slogan – Get the Facts. But what’s in a bottle of wine or a can of beer? Judging by current labels in Ireland and across the world, the answer might be some combination of a rural idyll, a promise of a good time, a romantic evening in, a cheeky brunch or a raucous night out with friends. The answer is whatever the marketing masterminds want you to believe and that is entirely at the discretion of the producer’s budget and where this product is being positioned in the market. What’s definitely not on the label are the facts about the risks from consuming this product.
What’s been happening?
Ireland is moving closer to the implementation of its ground-breaking legislation which provides for statutory labelling of alcohol products which will answer some of those questions.
The regulations are modest measures ensuring that details of calories, alcohol content in grams, warnings about drinking in pregnancy, facts about cancer and liver disease, plus a link to a government public health website, will be included on alcohol product labels. These measures – which have strong public support of 72% in polling data – were first proposed more than a decade ago, were extensively debated in the Oireachtas (Irish parliament), democratically mandated in 2018 and have been through detailed European Union notification processes which have now concluded.
In the most recent process, following a sustained campaign by Alcohol Action Ireland and other public health advocates, the Irish government finally published the draft regulations in June 2022. These give effect to the 2018 legislation providing exact specifications for the text, size, font and colour of the labels. Under EU procedures, there was then a standstill period during which time stakeholders and EU member states could make comments on the regulations. This stage concluded on 22 Dec 2022.
Who said what?
87 submissions were made with almost 70% supporting the regulations in a heartening response from public health and consumer advocates world-wide. The remainder came from alcohol industry bodies who opposed the regulations, with complaints ranging from accusations that the labels would disrupt the EU Single Market and worries about brand reputation, to some quite outrageous statements which attempted to create uncertainty about the well-evidenced cancer-causing properties of alcohol and even downplaying the links with liver disease.
13 member states, mostly those with significant wine producing industries, issued comments or detailed opinions with objections to the labels, though these are not published. In addition, there has been a massive level of lobbying by the alcohol industry throughout the EU structures against the measures, the scale and intent of which was laid bare in a recent report from IOGT-NTO and Movendi International.
The European Commission, which could have delayed the measures by up to 18 months if EU harmonisation work is planned or is already underway in the same field, made no comment in the technical process. Officials have made clear in discussions with MEPs and industry bodies that their evaluation had found the measures to be proportionate and justified on public health grounds. This is entirely consistent with the EU’s 2011 regulation on the provision of food information to consumers, which provides that members states can also adopt national labelling measures provided they notify the European Commission and other member states in advance. It is a recognition of a member state’s competency to adopt measures on the grounds of the protection of public health.
The final step now in this long, drawn-out process is for the Minister for Health in Ireland to sign them into law. At that point there will still be a three-year phasing in period before the public will see these labels.
Whining about wine
Since news of the conclusion of the EU notification period emerged, there has been an outbreak of hysteria from some sections of the alcohol industry which have termed the labels “dangerous” and “terrifying”, positing that the regulations will lead to a boycott of the Irish market.
The initial public response has been centred around Italy, a wine producing country whose exports account for approximately 10% of the Irish wine market. There was some further noise coming from Portugal, a much smaller exporter to Ireland, with annual exports of €6.3 million. That Italian wine, with its marketing aura of family wineries, should be the focus is perhaps not surprising. Frequently the multi-billion-dollar global alcohol industry – when opposing any progressive alcohol policy – tends to highlight possible inconvenience or costs to the smaller end of the industry. There is often an appeal to support the independent trader or craft brewer against ‘nanny state regulations’.
Whatever the reason for this current strategy it is noticeable that there has been little public comment in the media from French producers, but then alcohol products in France already have to carry a pregnancy warning. A good demonstration that this industry is certainly capable of producing different labels for different markets.
Deflection in action
The responses are also a good illustration of the industry’s ability to have their well-rehearsed talking points covered uncritically. In Ireland the story has been about interest in ‘Dry January’ and other alcohol reducing behaviour typical of the start of the New Year, the decrease in alcohol use in Ireland from its sky-high level in the early part of this century coupled with a Gen Z approach to wellness and the availability of non-alcoholic versions of beer, wine and spirits products. The reporting has also tended to include reference to the introduction of Minimum Unit Pricing of alcohol in Ireland in 2022. The message is clear, there is no problem here that would require consumers to be informed of the risks from this product.
Alongside this there have been references to the Europe Beating Cancer Plan, published in 2021, which envisaged cancer warnings on alcohol products by the end of 2023 and EU moves to provide for nutritional information on alcohol products. In the name of unity across the single market, industry has called for a delay in Ireland so that all of the EU can move together on this. However, Ireland’s regulations are already in keeping with the EU proposals and judging by the lobbying against the Cancer Plan and attempts to water down its proposals, it is clear that the industry’s intention is to slow this EU progress.
The times they are a changing
Despite all of this frenzy of opposition, the direction of travel globally is clear. The World Health Organisation earlier this month reported that even ‘light’ or ‘moderate’ alcohol use causes cancer and called for warning labelling. Norway is moving ahead with its plans for cancer warnings and there are increasing calls in Canada for similar labelling. Coherent action by public health advocates to support these moves whether by social media sharing, contacting elected representatives or most especially, challenging industry narratives in the media, will help to accelerate this progress.
Ireland may be leading the way at present, but surely we are not far from a time when consumers right to know the risks from alcohol will be vindicated and all alcohol labels will carry facts and not just myths.
Written by Dr Sheila Gilheany, CEO, Alcohol Action Ireland.
All IAS Blogposts are published with the permission of the author. The views expressed are solely the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of the Institute of Alcohol Studies.