Ireland’s alcohol warning label plan triggers US concern at WTO meeting

Mexico and Dominican Republic among those fearing State’s health warning requirements signed into law in May could pose barrier to trade

The United States and other countries have expressed concerns over Ireland’s plans for labels on alcoholic products that would warn of a link to cancer at a World Trade Organisation meeting on Wednesday, officials say.

The item was on the agenda of the Technical Barriers to Trade Committee of the WTO when it met in Geneva, a forum for the organisation’s 164 members to discuss and mediate potential disputes over regulations.

The US, Mexico, and the Dominican Republic raised concerns that Ireland’s new alcohol labelling requirements signed into law in May could present a barrier to trade at the meeting, according to a Geneva-based trade official.

Additional countries also spoke up in the meeting about the issue, some supporting the complaints made by others, including Japan, Colombia, Canada, Chile, Argentina, New Zealand, Cuba, Australia and Guatemala.


The objections centred on requirements for exporters to produce labels specific to Ireland from 2026, which the critics argued would create new costs and affect the ability of businesses to move product with the European market.

Speaking on behalf of Ireland, however, a representative for the European Union denied that businesses would be required to produce custom labels.

The required labelling information can be placed on the alcohol products with a sticker after they are imported into Ireland, the EU representative said, setting out that the law is designed to minimise the potential impact on cross-border trade.

The EU also noted that a three-year transition period had been provided to allow businesses to adapt to the coming changes.

The law would require alcohol products sold in Ireland to carry warning labels that read “drinking alcohol causes liver disease” and “there is a direct link between alcohol and fatal cancers” once it comes into effect following a three-year adjustment period.

In the discussion, some objecting countries stressed the importance of having harmonised regulations across the EU’s single market, an issue that was previously raised in talks in Brussels by the union’s major wine-producing countries, which objected to the law.

Other WTO members accused Ireland of requiring health warnings that were not based on objective scientific evidence, according to the Geneva official.

However, in the meeting, the World Health Organisation took the floor to speak about the harms to health associated with alcohol consumption.

The meeting was told that WHO body the International Agency for Research on Cancer categorises alcohol as a group 1 carcinogen, and that it causes various cancers including of the mouth, pharynx, larynx and liver.

The WHO also informed the meeting that no level of alcohol consumption can be considered safe for health, reiterating a position it set out earlier this year in medical journal The Lancet in a move to counter common beliefs that low or moderate levels of alcohol consumption are safe or even beneficial.

While there are plans for EU-wide regulations that would include labels for alcohol, the EU representative set out that this is in the early stages, with an impact assessment ongoing.

The EU said it would provide further replies to the concerns raised after the meeting.

Despite the objections raised by EU member states at an earlier stage, the European Commission did not object to Ireland’s law, saying it was in line with single market rules and scientific evidence and, in effect, allowing it to proceed.

WTO countries can continue to raise objections about Ireland’s law at the committee until their concerns are resolved. Ultimately, if the concerns about barriers to trade are not satisfied, the process can lead to the opening of a formal trade dispute.

Ahead of the meeting, a group of seven US health and consumer rights groups wrote an open letter urging Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo “to respect Ireland’s authority to enact new alcohol labeling requirements, including a cancer warning statement”.

“Reforms like those proposed in Ireland will significantly help to raise awareness about the risks associated with alcohol consumption, and support more informed decisions by consumers who choose to drink alcohol,” the letter from the Consumer Federation of America, American Institute for Cancer Research, and American Public Health Association read.

Naomi O’Leary

Naomi O’Leary

Naomi O’Leary is Europe Correspondent of The Irish Times