Alcohol labelling and health information

Opposition from our trading partners needs to be recognised

Sir, – Regarding Dr Sheila Gilheany’s reply (Letters, May 18th) to Senator Michael McDowell’s opinion piece on proposed alcohol labelling (Opinion & Analysis, May 17th), it is most unfair to use the word “zealotry”, even rhetorically, to characterise opposition to labelling regulations. It is also untrue to imply that opposition to the proposed alcohol labelling represents a pro-alcohol lobby stance. ISME, the Irish Small and Medium Enterprise Association, did not oppose minimum unit alcohol pricing, for example; and we know that in the realm of cigarette use, pricing has been singularly effective where labelling has not.

The real issue here is one of legislative and regulatory gold-plating.

Aside from the fact that the proposed labelling changes are unlikely to prevent a single death from cancer or alcohol abuse, the fact is that Ireland is committed to a process of harmonisation under EU food labelling legislation. ISME will fully support any labelling proposals that emerge from that process, as they will be consistent throughout the single market, and will not be market-distorting.

One can only image the outrage in Ireland if some other EU member state proposed, on a stand-alone basis, a dietary health warning to be applied to beef, sheep meat, poultry, fish or dairy products. We would undoubtedly cry foul. Yet that is precisely what Ireland proposes to do in a move which will greatly and rightly annoy French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese and Austrian producers and their governments, for no material benefit in terms of Irish health outcomes.


We are fully supportive of Alcohol Action Ireland’s use of exchequer funding to reduce the damage caused by alcohol abuse in Ireland, but its activities (like those of Government) must be aimed at effective outcomes and consistent with Ireland’s membership of the EU single market. – Yours, etc,


Chief Executive,


Dublin 2.

Sir, – Alcohol Action Ireland fails to mention the mounting international opposition from major trading partners to Ireland’s proposed alcohol labels, and the practical solution to introduce labels on an EU-wide basis, a plan that is already in train.

A notification process to the World Trade Organisation, which concluded last week, saw comments and criticism raised by up to 10 countries to the proposals, including the United States, the United Kingdom, New Zealand, Australia, Mexico and Cuba.

This comes after an EU process last year where the proposals met significant opposition from 13 EU member states, including Italy, France and Spain. This opposition was principally on the grounds that it is trade distorting within the EU single market and undermines a planned harmonised EU approach on health warning labels on alcohol.

This opposition from our trading partners needs to be recognised. Ireland is a significant global food and drinks exporter, and we constantly challenge measures from other countries that risk disrupting trade. In this regard, we cannot afford to be hypocritical as we have been significant beneficiaries of the single market. Indeed, proponents of this unilateral move have acknowledged that it may well compromise the single market. Nor should we create a scenario where smaller drinks producers and wine growers are effectively forced to exit the Irish market, thus impacting on the choice of moderate consumers.

Alcohol Action Ireland continues to call Ireland’s public health legislation “modest” or “limited”, when in fact we have some of the strictest legislation and codes in the world for marketing and selling alcohol, with high compliance rates from industry.

Further, alcohol consumption in Ireland has decreased by around 30 per cent in the last 20 years, according to Revenue data, with clear trends showing that people are seeking more balance in how they drink, choosing more premium products and supported by industry innovations like the growth of 0.0 options. This reality needs to be reflected in future policy development.

The industry continues to support providing consumers with clear product information on and off-label and is already well ahead of legislation in this regard, but we do not need two labelling systems. The logic remains that Ireland works with the EU on its plans for a harmonised approach.

The proposed labels risk reputational damage for Ireland, alienating trading partners and EU member states and potentially infringing the single market.

And to what end, given that there are already European Commission plans for a harmonised labelling regime, a matter of which Alcohol Action Ireland is well aware?

While there is much wisdom in Senator McDowell’s piece, he is wrong in one key respect: namely that 2018 marked “the high tide mark of alcohol zealotry”.

Would that this were so.

It might be time for policy makers and stakeholders to stand back, take stock, and examine what considered evidence-based policy making actually looks like. – Yours, etc,



Drinks Ireland,


Dublin 2.