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Tension rises over Ireland’s health warning labels for wine

A dispute between Europe's winemakers and Ireland’s government has continued to intensify as the country moves closer to enforcing compulsory health warnings on alcoholic drinks labels.

Ireland’s government has recently notified the World Trade Organisation (WTO) of its plans for mandatory health warning labels on wine bottles and other alcoholic drinks.

If implemented, written warnings would include stating there is a direct link between alcohol and fatal cancers, as well as a message about the dangers of drinking alcohol when pregnant. They form part of section 2012 of Ireland’s 2018 Public Health Act.

Proponents argue health warning labels will help to reduce alcohol-related disease in Ireland, but winemakers have strongly criticised the plans.

‘We need to stop a dangerous precedent that puts at risk a symbolic product of Italy,’ said Italian farming group Coldiretti in February.

Its president, Ettore Prandini, said it was inappropriate to penalise moderate wine consumption. Wine has been part of the Mediterranean diet for thousands of years, the group added.

Thirteen European Union member states, including the major wine-producing nations of France, Italy and Spain, criticised Ireland’s labelling plans during a recent consultation period, according to European wine trade body CEEV (Comité Européen des Entreprises Vins).

It also argued the plans were ‘clearly incompatible with EU law’, noting the premise of having a single market and harmonised legislation.

The European Commission hasn’t raised any objections to the Irish government’s plan, however.

‘The Commission indeed did not issue a negative opinion on the draft law,’ a European Commission spokesperson confirmed to Decanter.

‘Αlcohol-related harm is a major public health concern in the EU,’ the spokesperson said, adding that the bloc’s Cancer Plan specifically aims to reduce harmful use of alcohol across member states by 10% by 2025.

There is leeway for member states to adopt measures specific to their needs, the Commission said.

‘The Irish authorities have sufficiently demonstrated that the notified measures have been taken based on scientific evidence and public health grounds specific to the Irish context,’ the spokesperson said.

At the WTO, there is a 90-window for comments following Ireland’s notification, dated 6 February.

Ignacio Sánchez Recarte, secretary general of CEEV, said in February, ‘Now it is time for international partners at WTO level to raise again their concerns with the Irish proposal.’

He also added, ‘In the absence of action by the European Commission, little can be done. I guess only the European Union Court of Justice (ECJ) would be able to defend the EU at this stage.’ 

He told Decanter this week that he currently thinks it’s unlikely that a member state would take the issue to the ECJ. He said some non-EU countries will likely raise concerns about Ireland’s plans at the WTO, but added that he wasn’t convinced this would alter the proposals.

‘If Ireland didn’t care about [EU] member states complaining, will they listen to non-EU countries? Personally, I have some doubts.’

He said the European Commission has already indicated it plans to regulate health messaging on drinks labels. ‘We are happy and expecting to have a harmonised and proportionate system,’ he said, adding some information is already present on bottle labels.

Last year, members of the European Parliament distinguished between harmful and moderate consumption, and rejected health warnings in favour of messages about drinking in moderation.

One quarter of member nations of the World Health Organisation (WHO) have some form of health warning label on alcoholic drinks, but only South Korea currently has a warning linking alcohol to cancer risk, according to an editorial in the March 2023 edition of the Lancet Gastroenterology and Hepatology journal.

‘Ireland has an opportunity here to be world-leading in its alcohol policies,’ the authors wrote. ‘It could also provide valuable, high-quality data on the effectiveness of alcohol warning labels.’

Updated 01/03/23 to include additional comments from the CEEV.

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