Minister to remove cancer warnings on alcohol from Bill

Harris to introduce compromise proposals to include health warnings in Irish

Provisions to include warnings on alcohol products linking excessive consumption to fatal cancers will be removed from public health legislation that returns to the Dáil next week, it has been confirmed.

Minister for Health Simon Harris will introduce an amendment to the Public Health (Alcohol) Bill to remove one of the most controversial provisions – agreed in the Seanad – to include warnings on every alcohol product label stating that alcohol causes cancer.

He will accept a Sinn Féin amendment linking minimum unit pricing to the collection of data from hospitals and other health facilities on the number of beds taken up for alcohol-related illnesses.

And the Minister will also introduce compromise proposals to include Irish in alcohol health warnings without further delaying public health legislation that has already spent almost three years going through the Oireachtas.

But he will resist attempts to introduce exemptions to advertising and broadcasting restrictions and to block general health warnings on products.

Intense lobbying

The Bill was first mooted more than six years ago and introduced in the Seanad in December 2015 by the Taoiseach when he was minister for health but has been dogged by intense lobbying and rows over its provisions.

Cancer warnings are the latest area of division and Government backbenchers, Fianna Fáil TDs and a number of Independents have submitted amendments to delete the inclusion of cancer warnings on alcohol labels, in advertising, in pubs and restaurants and on websites on the grounds that it would damage the Irish alcohol industry against its international competitors.

Drinks industry representatives have stated that Irish products would be an international “pariah”.

The provision to include cancer warnings on every label on every alcohol product was championed by Independent Senator Frances Black and Labour Senator Ged Nash and accepted in a Seanad vote and subsequently in the Dáil committee debate.

When the legislation was first introduced, the Department of Health opposed the prescriptive requirement that cancer warnings be on every label of every product. It planned to rotate health warnings through regulations, which would link alcohol to a variety of illnesses including heart attacks and strokes.

Barrier to trade

Senior sources have said they will revert to this, arguing that even if the cancer warnings were kept in the legislation, the regulations afterwards will have to be referred to the European Commission. It was believed the prescriptive nature of the specific warning would be seen as a barrier to trade.

General health warnings will be not be affected as a number of EU countries carry them and Irish alcohol sold in countries such as the US and Israel carry warnings.

Mr Harris has agreed an amendment from Sinn Féin health spokeswoman Louise O’Reilly calling for data collection from hospitals on beds taken up with alcohol-related illnesses, to quantify the impact of health policy linking it to minimum unit pricing, being charged at 10 cent per gram of alcohol.

Ms O’Reilly said: “We are only estimating the impact of alcohol”, and it was time, like in other states, to include clear data.

Fianna Fáil health spokesman Stephen Donnelly submitted an amendment to include Irish on warnings to pre-empt litigation such as the successful High Court case taken to include warnings in Irish on tobacco products.

The legislation would be at an automatic standstill for a further three months because the European Commission would have to consider this as a change to the Bill and a compromise has been reached to include Irish in posters and on the HSE website but not on alcohol labels.