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European Parliament rejects health warnings on wine labels

A recommendation for cigarette-style health warnings on wine labels as part of a new EU cancer prevention strategy has been rejected by the European Parliament, in favour of messages promoting drinking in moderation.

Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) in Strasbourg have backed amendments to a range of recommendations put forward by the Special Committee on Beating Cancer (BECA), which included a proposal for health warnings on wine and drinks labels. 

BECA’s report, ‘Strengthening Europe in the fight against cancer’, included several measures designed to reduce harmful alcohol use by at least 10% by 2025.  

Signed by French oncologist and politician Véronique Trillet-Lenoir, it is part of a wider process aimed at fighting all cancer risk factors, improving cancer care, and increasing relevant research cooperation and funding across the European Union.

The original report defined any form of alcohol consumption as a risk factor for a range of cancers and chronic diseases, alongside tobacco, poor nutrition, a high body mass index, a sedentary lifestyle, and environmental pollution.

The claim was based on a 2016 study published in Cancer Epidemiol, which stated that, across Europe, an estimated 10% of all cancer cases in men and 3% in women are attributable to alcohol consumption.

With this week’s vote, however, MEPs favoured an amendment to the report that supported the key distinction between consumption and ‘harmful’ abuse of alcohol.

‘We welcome the amended report that [was] officially adopted 16 February,’ said Ignacio Sánchez Recarte, secretary general of European wine industry body CEEV.

He added, ‘The adopted text now makes the fundamental differentiation between harmful consumption and moderate consumption.’

MEPs also voted against the imposition of health warning labels similar to those currently shown on cigarettes, in favour of messages incentivising moderate and responsible drinking.

‘We have managed to get rid of the senseless recommendation to put health warnings on wine bottles as we do with packets of cigarettes,’ said Italian MEPs Paolo de Castro, Herbert Dorfmann, and Pina Picierno, three of the leading signatories of the successful amendments.

‘On the contrary, we are calling for more transparent labelling systems for alcoholic beverages, which provide consumers with information on moderate and responsible drinking,’ they said in a joint statement.

The European Parliament also rejected the theory that ‘there is no safe level’ of alcohol consumption in preventing cancer.

‘The assumption that there is “no safe level” was misleading and simplistic as it fails to consider drinking patterns and other lifestyle factors; thankfully Members of the European Parliament agreed to amend this reference,’ said Recarte.

The argument originated from the World Health Organisation’s response to a 2018 paper published in leading medical academic journal The Lancet. and a subsequent WHO report partially based on a further 2020 Lancet study.

In line with the 2018 Lancet paper’s findings, which show that ‘the safest level of drinking is none’, the BECA report’s wording has been amended to ‘the safest level of alcohol consumption is none when it comes to cancer prevention’.

The three Italian MEPS who led a campaign for amendments, added: ‘Last but not least, we have ensured a more balanced approach with regards to any future restrictions on the sponsorship of sporting events by large alcoholic beverage producers, limiting them to events attended by younger people.’

They said: ‘Thanks to the support of our amendments by the overwhelming majority of political groups, we will have a European plan against cancer that is not only ambitious but also capable of taking into account our traditions, cultural and culinary, without demonising any sector.’

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