Alcohol: still in-Vin-cible, or losing the bottle?

In February 2018, the Irish Minister of Health announced plans to try and pass the Public Health Alcohol Bill as part of a long-term strategy to prevent cancer in Ireland. The plan aims to reduce national alcohol consumption by increasing information and education on the links between alcohol and cancer. This will involve the requirement to add warning labels to bottles of alcohol, very similar to the ones seen on tobacco products. Beer, wine and spirits producers in Ireland were not all too pleased about this bill and it has become a hot political topic. However, it seems that in a couple of years it is not only Irish alcohol producers that will have to worry about their sales.

Although not as ambitious as Ireland’s labelling strategy, the European Commission released a report announcing that alcoholic beverages containing more than 1.2% by volume of alcohol should no longer be exempt from Article 16(4) of Regulation (EU) No 1169/2011 on the provision of food information to consumers. Stakeholders were then asked to set forward proposals for the labelling of ingredients and nutrition information on booze. On 12 March, various stakeholders released a joint proposal suggesting that instead of providing such information in printed form, consumers could access it online through their smartphones by scanning a digital QR barcode on the bottle.

Although the Commission has not provided its feedback to the joint proposal, there has been major backlash from public health groups and NGOs which may very well indicate that alcohol producers will not be getting their way and will have to conform with the Commission’s report in the near future. The current biggest debate remains the requirement to display information on calories per 100 grams or 100 millilitres. Whilst beer brewers are fine with the requirement due to a regular pint containing way more than 100ml, spirit distillers are arguing against this threshold because it exaggerates the calorie content in a single standard serving of any spirit. In the meantime, winemakers have highlighted the costs such rules would generate due to ingredients lists having to be continuously updated following the changing nature of wine during the maturation process.

It is unknown when the exact details will be ironed out but after three decades of intense lobbying it seems the EU is finally cracking down on the unequal playing field between alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverage manufacturers. As for Ireland, it will be even harder to reach an agreement on health warnings on alcohol. After all, doesn’t the old slogan say « Guinness is Good for You » ?

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