Labelling alcohol products: It’s time to put the facts where they belong – on the bottle

Government must step up in absence of EU regulation on providing product information

A drinker consuming a low-risk level of alcohol on a weekly basis is equivalent to almost an additional day’s calories. Photograph: Getty Images/iStock

A drinker consuming a low-risk level of alcohol on a weekly basis is equivalent to almost an additional day’s calories. Photograph: Getty Images/iStock

 

Unlike most other consumable products sold in Ireland, alcohol producers are currently not obliged to list contents, ingredients or nutritional values. This reflects the undesirable and irrational fact that there is no harmonising EU legislation regarding listing ingredients, nutritional values or health warnings on alcoholic beverages. In contrast to tobacco, alcohol products are not required to display any health warnings on their products.

Alcoholic beverages, above 1.2 per cent alcohol by volume have benefited from special treatment in all EU regulation on labelling, in a manner that facilitates alcohol harm. At present, they are largely exempted from international conventions and from key food legislation that mandates labelling of ingredients and nutritional information. The World Health Organisation (WHO) has long called for mandatory content and nutritional labelling and health messages for alcohol products. The Brewers are a notable exception who at least, since 2015, have promoted a voluntary disclosure to display specific consumer information.

It is a fundamental right of consumers to make informed choices about the products they purchase, and it is the obligation of government to ensure citizens are able to do so. Adequate labelling of alcohol products must be viewed as part of a comprehensive strategy to provide information and educate consumers to prevent, and reduce, alcohol-related harm.

The Government, guided by a significant deficit in public awareness of the inherent risk associated with alcohol consumption, and mindful of the impact on public health outcomes, has sought to address this vacuum with real leadership. The provisions of the Public Health (Alcohol) Bill seek to establish a regulatory environment to ensure all alcohol products, sold in the State, display information on alcohol content, energy value, appropriate health warnings and information portal details.

The harms of alcohol across society are well documented. Alcohol is the most common cause of cirrhosis and liver failure. Alcohol is recognised as a Group 1 carcinogen by the WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer, ie a definite cause of cancer, including the two most common fatal cancers in Ireland, breast and bowel/colon.

Working as a liver doctor in a large hospital in Dublin, all too frequently I care for patients who have fatal illnesses and cancers as a direct result of consuming alcohol. They, and their families, frequently say that they did not know that alcohol consumption would harm them so seriously. They have every right to feel aggrieved at the alcohol companies who have failed to inform consumers, and an EU authority that has failed to establish adequate regulation to highlight the detrimental effects of alcohol products.

Gradual change

An open and transparent alcohol labelling policy cannot be seen as an initiative that will modify harmful behaviour overnight, but as a measure to bring gradual, constructive change over time. Most drinkers in Ireland underestimate how much alcohol they consume, and in the context that the public health objective is to encourage low risk consumption, consumers need to easily understand how much alcohol they consume.

Alcohol products are a major source of calorie intake and a contributor to obesity. Clear presentation of information such as energy values (kilojoules/kilocalories) alcoholic products will also enhance individual awareness of the under-appreciated contribution made by “invisible calories” in alcohol to obesity. A drinker consuming a low-risk level of alcohol on a weekly basis is equivalent to almost an additional day’s calories.

Evidence from other countries has demonstrated that a voluntary pledge by the alcohol industry to provide product information does not lead to significant provision of such information to consumers. Furthermore, the proposal by industry that it is sufficient to provide alcohol product information online only, misses the crucial point of providing easy consumer access at the most immediate point of decision-making.

Product-labelling regulation is increasingly an important instrument in influencing social norms around alcohol consumption. Many jurisdictions throughout North America, Asia, Africa and the Middle East, which also feature among the markets for Irish exports, have adopted proactive measures that contribute to ensure a better-informed population.

I suggest that we ask ourselves a simple question: is it right that alcohol products aren’t labelled to outline their ingredients, calorie content and warnings about some or all of their risks?

I suggest that it is a wrong that should be corrected.

The time has come for mandatory labelling and warnings on alcohol products. The idea that such harmful products are exempt from regulation is outmoded. The labelling and warning provisions of the Public Health (Alcohol) Bill are a very progressive measure and must now be implemented without further delay.

– Prof Frank Murray, is a consultant in hepatology & gastroenterology, and chair, Alcohol Health Alliance Ireland. Prof Murray will this week address the EASL 2018 International Liver Congress in Paris, highlighting the need for a renewal of EU Alcohol Strategy.

Read: HSE alcohol limits may still put drinkers’ health at risk

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