The Irish government is “grateful and somewhat surprised” that the European Commission did not reject their draft regulation for health warning labels on alcohol, despite renewed attempts by other member states to block the proposal.
The draft regulation to the 2018 Irish Public Health (Alcohol) Act, which addresses for the first time alcohol as a public health issue in the Irish legal framework, would require alcohol products to have mandatory health warnings added to their labels, like those on tobacco products.
Any national attempt to regulate food labelling is frowned upon at the European level, as it could fragment the single market by creating different marketing standards and requirements for companies operating in the sector.
For this reason, a proposal for food labelling to apply at a national level and not EU-wide requires a specific approval procedure by the European Commission under the Single Market Transparency Directive (SMTD) and under the 2011 EU regulation on food information to consumers.
The consultation process on the Irish alcohol labelling, conducted by the European Commission’s Technical Regulation Information System (TRIS), was tasked with preventing technical barriers to internal trade. It formally ended on 22 December with no objections raised – a verdict that, procedurally speaking, amounts to tacit approval.
“Clearly what we’re doing is a breach of the single market in some way, in the sense that we’re looking for extra changes to a product compared to the way it’s sold in other countries,” Claire Gordon, manager of the tobacco and alcohol control unit at the Irish Department of Health, explained at an event on Wednesday (1 February)
“We are very grateful and indeed somewhat surprised – and somewhat surprised is an understatement – that our proposals got through that EU assessment process successfully,” Gordon told the event, organised by the Swedish presidency of the EU Council.
The next steps, she said, will include a notification to the World Trade Organisation (WTO), as the new labelling system might be considered an obstacle to international trade.
According to Gordon, this final step could present some other hardships for the Irish government. “Hopefully within two to three months, we’ll be able to kick off this law and then the next thing is for everybody else to follow,” she commented.
Pushback from wine-producing countries
Wine-producing countries remain unconvinced by Ireland’s unilateral approach, as stressed by Spanish Agriculture Minister Luis Planas, who called for a common approach to alcohol labelling to preserve the single market.
“We have respect for the competence of the member states in health matters, but here we are regulating a food product recognised by the Treaty of the Functioning of the EU.”
In a position issued on Wednesday (1 February), the Assembly of European Wine Regions (AREV), stressed that Ireland’s draft law calls into question “the unity of Europe in the implementation of democratically adopted decisions, putting at risk, in this case, the wine sector, which is so important for the structuring of the territory and the socio-economic fabric of rural areas.”
A coalition of member states led by Italy, France and Spain teamed up against the draft regulation at the most recent gathering of EU agricultural ministers on Monday (30 January).
In a joint document, the coalition said it hopes to persuade the Irish government to take milder positions through dialogue and embrace an EU-wide approach to alcohol labelling instead of national decisions.
However, Irish government officials confirmed to the Italian news agency Ansa that the tacit consent from Brussels “represents another important step to adopt these rules”.
Health risks of alcohol
Gordon said that, until about 10 years ago, her work at the Irish health department was mostly about tobacco control. “But then alcohol became recognised as a risk factor for non-communicable diseases (NCDs),” she said.
As it stands, alcohol products in Ireland contain no information or provide no warnings to potential consumers of these risks.
Siobhan McNamara, a senior executive officer of the tobacco and alcohol control unit at the Irish Department of Health, said at the Swedish presidency event:
“We know that health warnings on tobacco are effective. We know that warning labels have been effective have been effective in countries where they’ve already been introduced. They influence purchase decisions, and ultimately they reduce consumption.”
If the draft enters into force, alcohol labels will contain three health warnings: a general one to inform the public of the danger of alcohol consumption; one informing people of the danger of drinking when pregnant; and a warning to inform people of the direct link between alcohol and cancer.
“This has been quite contentious. Based on the high cases of liver disease in Ireland, it was decided that in the regulations, a general warning would relate to liver cancer,” explained McNamara.
Alongside alcohol labelling, the Irish Public Health act contains a range of measures, from advertising to sponsorship to the separation of alcohol products in retail shops, as well as financial mechanisms such as the minimum unit pricing which sets a floor price beneath which alcohol products cannot be sold.
[Edited by Nathalie Weatherald]