The Committee was informed by the Minister of State at the Department of Health Catherine Byrne that the measures contained in the Public Health (Alcohol) Bill complied with European Commission rules and that there was “no block” to them being introduced.
The Bill’s provisions meant that consumers will be informed of the “settled international scientific consensus that there is a link between alcohol and cancers and he or she can make a decision on that basis,” according to the Minister of State.
Sinn Féin and Fianna Fáil supported the proposal to include cancer warnings on the labels of alcohol containers while Labour TD Sean Sherlock withdrew an amendment on the issue.
However the Minister of State did move an amendment to remove the requirement for health warnings to take up at least one third of the size of the printed material.
This requirement had been added after an amendment was accepted at report stage in the Senate last year but the European Commission had informed the Irish government that this was “disproportionate” when the objective to protect public health could be achieved with a smaller health warning. Fine Gael TD Bernard Durkan also described the present warning label size requirement as “over the top”.
The Minister of State said that the Bill would now go to report and final stages in the Dáil, most likely in the Autumn.
The Alcohol Beverage Federation of Ireland has sharply criticised the Health Committee following the lack of movement on cancer warning labels, pointing out that the Government is ignoring a vital Irish industry which supports almost 210,000 jobs and drives exports worth €1.25 billion every year.
“There are currently 18 whiskey distilleries in Ireland and 19 more planned, as well as 100 breweries around the country,” said Patricia Callan, Director of Alcohol Beverage Federation of Ireland, “While we support the objectives of the Alcohol Bill to tackle harmful drinking and alcohol misuse we cannot stand by as the Government ignores these businesses, ignores the evidence and ignores any reasonable amendments that would make this legislation workable and ensure it remains effective.
“If introduced, these labels would be inaccurate, misleading and trade-distorting.”
ABFI has outlined five reasons why cancer warning labels should be removed from the Alcohol Bill:
- These labels will be confusing and misleading: the association between alcohol and cancer is complex and cannot be adequately explained in a single label. Risks should be communicated clearly and accurately to ensure consumers make informed choices about their drinking and must balance the benefits as well as the risks
- It will cause huge reputational damage to Ireland’s food and drinks industry: no other country in the world has mandatory cancer labels on alcohol products and such a measure applies a stigma to products made in Ireland
- It will cause barriers to trade both in and out of Ireland: Irish producers will be required to develop labels specifically for the Irish market and a second set of labels for elsewhere, which will impact on their ability to export. Additionally, producers and distributors that supply products to Ireland will have to create labels specifically for the Irish market which will also be costly and logistically difficult, so many will simply not export to Ireland.
- Small producers will suffer: research from DKM economic consultants shows that introducing Irish-only health warning labels will impose significant costs on Irish producers and distributors because they will be required to develop labels specifically for the Irish market and a second set of labels for elsewhere. It’s anticipated that it will cost approximately €50,000 to redesign an entire suite of labelling for a single product line and additional stock control costs will also arise.
- Other Irish food and drinks products may be targeted next: similar labelling requirements could be extended to other Irish food and drinks products. For example, red meat and processed meat have been associated with an increased risk of cancer
The drinks industry is already required to label products for different markets believed Sinn Féin TD Louise O’Reilly who did not think the proposal would be as onerous as some people feared, she stated during the committee stage.
“Claims have been made that it would be easy for producers to change their labels for the Irish market, as they do it for other markets like the US,” Patricia Callan commented, “However, the Irish market is significantly smaller than the US and therefore it’s more expensive for producers to make tailored labels for a market the size of Ireland. It would make way more sense to have EU-wide labelling requirements. This is something that’s already in train, with European drinks companies currently working towards a new EU-wide commitment to provide more nutritional and ingredient information in conjunction with the European Commission. It should be noted also that health warnings in countries like the US are more reasonable in their nature, highlighting the link between excessive consumption and health problems rather than a sweeping and misleading ‘alcohol causes cancer’ statement.”
She concluded, “We believe that the objectives of the Alcohol Bill could be achieved through more effective and less trade restrictive means which would tackle the issue of alcohol misuse and would not unnecessarily damage this industry. For example, research from DrinkAware shows that less than 3% of Irish adults can correctly identify the HSE low-risk guidelines for alcohol consumption. As a starting point, the Government should focus on increasing awareness of these guidelines.”
Minister of State Catherine Byrne stated that the regulations would not be confirmed until after the Bill had been enacted.
However Fianna Fáil’s health spokesman Stephen Donnelly has tweeted that if the Government falls before the long-awaited Public Health Alcohol Bill gets through the Oireachtas, the Bill will fail.
Alcohol consumption has fallen by 25% since 2005, according to the WHO and the latest ESPAD report, published in 2016, showed a significant decline in underage alcohol consumption, with Ireland moving from 8th to 28th out of 33 countries analysed over the course of the study.