Department of Health was urged to show how alcohol label law did not breach WTO rules

Emails between trade and health officials came in advance of notification of new law to World Trade Organisation

A senior official from the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment told the Department of Health that it would need to demonstrate to the World Trade Organisation (WTO) that Ireland’s new alcohol labelling law is not in breach of international trade rules, documents show.

Ireland was required to notify the 164-member international trade body of the plan to require labels on alcohol products that warn of a link to cancer, and did so in February this year.

Before making this notification, the Department of Health was urged to beef up a document outlining the plans in order to ensure that the process was successful, according to an exchange of emails released under a Freedom of Information request.

“Broadly speaking you will need to outline how these measures are not a breach of WTO rules,” Liam Morris, the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment’s director for trade policy told a Department of Health official in an email on January 28th.


“In that respect it will be important for you to address whether this is discriminatory, or will disproportionately affect imported products viz domestic producers.”

In a later email, Mr Morris outlined that the notification document needed to demonstrate that the law would not lead to preferential treatment of domestic companies compared with overseas businesses that sell alcoholic products into Ireland.

“Your notification and justification document should include a section outlining how the measures which are being implemented are being done in the interests of protecting human health and are not discriminatory,” he wrote.

He further suggested that the document needed to outline whether the European Union was planning to develop its own pan-continental rules on alcohol labelling, an issue that was raised by critics of the Irish law as a reason to delay.

One point on the document “needs to be further developed to reflect whether the EU as a whole is, regarding alcohol labelling and work elsewhere, at a multilateral level”, he wrote.

“The more information that can be provided in the notification document, the greater the chance we have of managing the comments and questions that will inevitably be submitted by WTO Members,” Mr Morris wrote.

“It is therefore in our interests, from both a [Department of Health] and [Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment] perspective that we ensure that the WTO notification process is successful and not open to avoidable criticism.”

In response to the January 28th email, the Department of Health’s principal officer for Tobacco and Alcohol Control Claire Gordon stressed that the notification should be given as soon as possible.

“Our minister is receiving daily press queries on this measure. It is very high profile and the notification needs to be done as a matter of urgency,” she wrote. “It is not tenable that our minister continue to take criticism for delays in a process that is outside his control.”

The alcohol labelling law is to come into force in 2026 and will require any alcohol sold in Ireland to carry labels reading “drinking alcohol causes liver disease” and “there is a direct link between alcohol and fatal cancers”.

Ireland is a front-runner in passing such legislation internationally and the law provoked significant pushback from countries that have large alcohol industries.

After the notification was made, the law was raised at a meeting of the WTO’s Technical Barriers to Trade Committee in June, where the United States, Mexico and the Dominican Republic raised concerns that the law could present a barrier to trade.

Some countries argued that the planned law was disproportionate or unjustified, while others insisted that there should be harmonised regulations on labelling across the EU’s single market, according to a Geneva official.

The purpose of the committee is to resolve disputes over laws by allowing such objections and for the proposing member state to respond to their concerns. If objections continue to be raised in subsequent committee meetings, the issue can develop into a formal trade dispute.

In May, Ms Gordon wrote that the Department of Health had received “numerous comments” about the law from industry groups, as well as from WTO member states after the notification.

A Department of Health “lines-to-take” briefing document also released under a Freedom of Information request noted that when the law was notified to the European Commission at an earlier point, the majority of the interested groups that made submissions did so to express their support, including medical and cancer organisations. Nine EU member states objected to the proposals, but the European Commission ultimately raised no objection.

Naomi O’Leary

Naomi O’Leary

Naomi O’Leary is Europe Correspondent of The Irish Times