'New alcohol laws will protect people from harm - and drinks firms are trying to undermine them'

The government’s alcohol Bill includes mandatory health warnings covering one-third of drinks labels.

By Eunan McKinney Alcohol Action Ireland

IN RECENT WEEKS, there has been a sustained undermining of the government’s proposed Public Health (Alcohol) Bill and, specifically, the measures to regulate the labelling of alcohol products to include nutritional and health warning information.

Some of this negative comment has emanated from artisan producers of alcohol products, with doomsday prospects for our ‘small alcohol producers’ whose low single-digit market share will be either destroyed or damaged.

These outcomes are grossly exaggerated and hope to court the minds of edgy legislators, always mindful of mollifying an entrepreneurial constituent. Seemingly, protecting public health must always come second.

The Bill contains a range of measures, each designed to work together to reduce alcohol consumption and so lessen the impact of alcohol-related harms.

It will protect children, families and communities from harm and create an environment that supports a low-risk approach to alcohol consumption.

In a society where it is known that alcohol is having a significantly negative impact on our social and economic wellbeing, many public health advocates, officials and government, have determined that to affect real change we must enact a range of public policy measures that can help achieve a reduction in alcohol consumption.

Fundamentally, this does pose a conflict with business interest, who only foresee continued growth.

Business, and all the benefits that flows from its enterprise, make a significant contribution to a progressive society, but its facilitation simply is not equal to advancing the health and wellbeing of our nation.

However, this does not mean that the set of measures such as adequate labelling, are extreme or disruptive.

The Bill proposes a three-year transitional period that allows businesses adequate time for existing stocks to be used and new, compliant labels, to be advanced.

Labelling requirements

Many alcohol producers in Ireland, big and small, are meeting special labelling requirements to be compliant with the demands of exports target markets and largely have no difficulty with complying to regulations prescribed in law.

Only produce sold in Ireland will require the proposed new labelling provisions, which state that a minimum of one-third of alcohol labels must carry health warnings, including a cancer warning. All exports will be exempt from the regulations proposed.

Already, hundreds of successful artisan food producers are meeting similar labelling requirements.

As an example, if a fruit juice producer in rural Carlow can manage to label its products with detailed health, nutritional and ingredient information, why can’t alcohol producers do the same?

Many fledgling alcohol entrepreneurs complain that government, rather than imposing consumer regulations on them, should be supporting their enterprise.

Yet between 2015 and 2017, 93 microbreweries and distillers were given €2.12 million in supports from Local Enterprises offices, and 16 microbreweries and distillers received a further €1.7 million in grants and equity investments from Enterprise Ireland.

Additionally, 73 of the operating microbreweries also benefit annually from a €4 million excise duty rebate. That’s a lot of public money subsidising a microbrewing sector worth €52 million in turnover during 2016.

Reducing harm

Since 2010, the WHO has endorsed labelling of alcohol products as an “essential tool to increase awareness and reduce alcohol-related harm”.

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This has led the Codex Commission to begin a process to establish a global standard on alcoholic beverage labelling including health warnings for carcinogenicity.

At a time of deep crisis in our own health services, where a lack of information has proven to be so controversial, is Irish business really proposing that alcohol products be exempt from such principles?

To the global alcohol companies, who control the vast majority of the market, the very idea that alcohol products would display a direct link between alcohol and fatal cancers is a commercial outrage.

The International Agency for Cancer Research, an agency of the UN-WHO, has affirmed alcohol as a group-one carcinogen.

In Ireland, one in eight breast cancers are directly related to alcohol. Every year around 900 people are diagnosed with alcohol-related cancers and around 500 people die from these diseases.

A recent global drugs survey demonstrates that warnings stating ‘drinking less reduces your risk of seven different sorts of cancers’ would impact on the consumption of 40% of those surveyed.

And here in lies a crucial point: better-informed consumers will act more rationally.

Which begs the question, why would alcohol producers not want to inform consumers? Is it because it will, just as regulation on tobacco did, likely reduce consumption and lead to better public health outcomes? I think we could all raise a glass to that.

Eunan McKinney is head of communications and advocacy at Alcohol Action Ireland.

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