Guest article by Dr Sheila Gilheany, CEO Alcohol Action Ireland
In Alcohol Action Ireland we are gearing up for the European Parliament elections in June 2024. Alcohol policy can cover a wide terrain from recommendations on taxation, marketing restrictions and licensing hours not to mention issues around treatment and support for families. However, many of these policies are more usually addressed within the national sphere. So, when it comes to European affairs, we need to hone our advocacy in areas which are pan-European. For this reason, we are focused on the labelling of alcohol products, and we are working closely with our partners in the European Alcohol Policy Alliance (Eurocare) and other public health organisations who share a common purpose.
What’s the problem?
Unlike any other product sold in the EU, alcoholic beverages containing more than 1.2% of alcohol by volume are not required to give calorie information or list their ingredients on their labels. The European Commission has already acknowledged the absence of any objective rationale for this exemption in a 2017 report to the European Parliament and the Council and there have been proposals to have this exemption lifted. Alongside this there are also proposals from the Europe Beating Cancer Plan, to have specific health warnings included on labels by the end of 2023. However, there have been significant delays in relation to both proposals and it seems unlikely that measures will be advanced during the mandate of this Parliament. Not surprisingly there has been considerable opposition from the alcohol industry who regard the labelling of alcohol products as solely myth making, marketing territory.
Can national policy impact EU policy?
Ireland, however, has already shown considerable global leadership in this area becoming the first country in the world to adopt comprehensive labelling regulations with mandatory requirements for alcohol products to have information on calories, alcohol content as well as warnings about cancer risk, liver disease and pregnancy. This will come into effect from May 2026. This has been achieved against a backdrop of global industry opposition, but it demonstrates that with determination, progress can be made.
We have already seen other countries moving in this direction with Norway actively considering cancer warning labelling, similar recommendations being made by public health bodies in Canada and a clear call from the World Health Organisation for such labelling.
With such momentum, it is opportune to highlight this issue in an EU context. In relation to the European elections, we have been meeting with current MEPs to discuss the current situation and contacting the directors of elections in the various political parties to have proposals for mandatory labelling of alcohol products included in their party manifestos. We have been guided in this by Eurocare’s work in this area particularly with their recent helpful position paper and have been feeding outcomes back to Eurocare.
For our part, we have been highlighting Ireland’s leadership in this area and emphasising that it is a consumer’s right to know the facts about alcohol. We have also been warning about the alcohol industry’s lobbying that any such information should only be provided off-label via QR codes, an approach which certainly is not consumer-friendly and much more likely to obscure the facts.
As a supporting area of advocacy, we will also be approaching all candidates to make a commitment to supporting the World Health Organization (WHO) view that the ‘alcohol industry should have no role in the formulation of alcohol policies, which must be protected from distortion by commercial or vested interests’.
At the very least such a declaration will give us a clear indication of who might be a helpful voice in the new Parliament around public health – something which is vital in advocacy work across any of our issues.
Disclaimer: the opinions – including possible policy recommendations – expressed in the article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views or opinions of EPHA. The mere appearance of the articles on the EPHA website does not mean an endorsement by EPHA.