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Ireland’s plans for cancer warnings on alcohol labels draw formal complaint

Ireland’s plans to insert alarming health warnings on bottles of wine, beer and spirits have sparked an official complaint to the European Commission.

Dublin wants all alcoholic drinks labels to carry warnings similar to those on cigarette packets, highlighting the risks of liver disease and developing fatal cancers.

This has been met with a fierce backlash from fellow EU member states, especially those that export large volumes of wine across the bloc.

Italy, whose wine industry is worth around €14 billion per year and employs roughly 1.3 million people, has spearheaded the protests.

Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani called the Irish plan an ‘attack’ on Italy’s identity and heritage. Trade body Coldiretti said that the ‘terrifying’ warning labels would set ‘a dangerous precedent at a European level’.

Wine producers argue that it is unfair to compare alcohol with cigarettes, as it can be enjoyed in moderation without impacting health.

The Comité Européen des Entreprises Vins (CEEV) has now submitted a formal complaint to the European Commission.

It wants the commission to open an infringement procedure against Ireland for breaching EU law and jeopardising the single market.

CEEV’s complaint declares that Ireland’s proposed labels are ‘incompatible’ with EU law, and accuses them of representing ‘a disproportionate and unjustified barrier to trade contrary to Articles 34 and 36 of the Treaty of Functioning of the EU’.

It adds that Dublin has ‘never properly justified’ the measure proposed, and says that the labels ‘fail to distinguish between alcohol abuse and moderate wine consumption, therefore failing to accurately inform consumers’.

CEEV president Mauricio González-Gordon said: ‘They will fragment the EU single market by affecting its proper functioning, de facto hindering access of products from other member states to Ireland and thus generating clear discrimination to imported products.

‘While we fully support the fight against alcohol abuse, we strongly believe this objective could be achieved by more effective and less trade-restrictive measures that should be, in addition, compatible with current EU law.’

Thirteen EU member states have raised concerns about Dublin’s proposed rules, and eight non-EU countries also flagged the issue to the World Trade Organisation (WTO).

Ignacio Sánchez Recarte, the secretary general of CEEV, which represents wine producers in 25 countries, said: ‘With Ireland’s lack of reaction to the many concerns raised by national governments and with the inexplicable failure of the European Commission to act and defend the EU law and EU single market, we were left with no other choice but to present an official EU complaint to request an infringement procedure to be opened against Ireland.

‘We remain convinced that it is the responsibility of the European Commission to work towards defining a harmonised and scientifically appropriate legal framework that protects the EU single market and adequately informs consumers.’

In February, the Irish government said it was ‘grateful and somewhat surprised’ that the European Commission did not reject the draft regulation for its proposed health warning labels.

The next step will be to gain WTO approval, as the system could be deemed an obstacle to international trade.

The Irish Department of Health hopes to ‘kick off this law’ by the summer, according to tobacco and alcohol control unit manager Claire Gordon, but European wine producers will continue to oppose the plans.

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