Guest article by Dr Sheila Gilheany, CEO Alcohol Action Ireland
In a significant move on alcohol policy, on 22 May 2023, Ireland’s Minister for Health signed into law regulations requiring comprehensive health information labelling on alcohol products sold in Ireland. The labels include warnings that:
- Drinking alcohol causes liver disease
- There is a direct link between alcohol and fatal cancers and
- Displays a health symbol intended to inform the public of the danger of alcohol consumption when pregnant
In addition, the regulations make it mandatory that the alcohol and calorie content within the product is stated, and that the public health alcohol information website ‘askaboutalcohol.ie’ is displayed. Similar notices will also have to be placed in licensed premises.
Businesses will have three years to introduce the labelling.
A long advocacy journey
These warnings were first recommended in a significant 2012 report and from then it has been a battle with the alcohol industry mobilising ferocious opposition on a global level. However, public health advocates at local, national and international levels, came together to put forward the compelling evidence about the harms from an inherently risky product and necessity for such labelling.
Over the years, Alcohol Action Ireland (AAI) organised information events, gathered polling data, provided input to a high-profile advertising campaign calling for government action on labelling and kept up a high level of media comment on the issue, countering alcohol industry misinformation. At a national level the Alcohol Health Alliance Ireland, founded jointly by AAI and the Royal College of Physicians in Ireland, brought together over 60 organisations and individuals to advocate for the passage of the legislation – the Public Health (Alcohol) Act 2018 which also includes controls on pricing, availability and advertising of alcohol.
A number of formal notification processes with both the EU Commission and the World Trade Organisation were required. AAI led a campaign to encourage public health advocates to make supportive submissions to the EU process. We very much appreciated the input of colleagues working at European level such as the European Alcohol Policy Alliance (Eurocare), EPHA and IOGT/Movendi who also mobilised their members and provided valuable input to EU processes. We were also greatly heartened by support from across the globe including Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the USA many of whom had worked on similar campaigns. In the most recent EU process, 60 such submissions were made representing 70% of all submissions, which incidentally mirrors the public support for the measure as indicated in Irish polling data. 13 Member States issued detailed opinions or comments.
The Commission did not have a problem with Ireland’s regulations. Indeed Stella Kyriakides, European Commissioner for Health and Food Safety noted that that ‘..the Commission considered that the Irish authorities demonstrated that the notified measures were justified on public health grounds considering the situation in Ireland and that any resulting restrictions for the internal market that the measures may have were proportionate to the objective pursued..’
The notification standstill period with the World Trade Organization ended on 7 May 2023 and as the Irish government had fulfilled its responsibilities it was then in a position to sign the regulations into law.
The labels, while modest in look, are seismic in what they represent -a marker of a government which has stood up to bully boy tactics and stood with their citizens’ fundamental right to know the facts about a product which they may buy.
We look forward to other countries following suit.
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.