What could Ireland’s decision on alcohol health warning labels mean for the UK drinks industry?

By Alex Tiley, Consultant

The World Health Organisation described Ireland’s recent decision to introduce comprehensive health labelling of alcohol products as “Ireland leads the way” and called Ireland “pioneers of public health”. The decision from the Irish Government came after statistics were published on alcohol-related harms that highlighted continued high levels of consumption and hazardous drinking habits in Ireland, alongside low population awareness regarding the health risks associated with alcohol consumption.

This move will see red block capital letters added to wines, spirits, and beers that read “DRINKING ALCOHOL CAUSES LIVER DISEASE” and “THERE IS A DIRECT LINK BETWEEN ALCOHOL AND FATAL CANCERS”, permanently ruining the aesthetics of a bottle of Veuve Clicquot for all. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the move has been met with major disappointment from the drinks industry, who perceive it as a barrier and restraint to trade. Nine major trading partners with Ireland in the EU, including France, have given unfavourable opinions to the Commission over it, but despite this, the Irish Health Minister Stephen Donnelly, remains bullish and unrepentant over the decision.

The World Health Organisation has for a long time advocated for health warnings on bottles of alcohol, but to date, it has only been the Irish Government that has seen fit to take it up. The question is, however, whether this will set a precedent globally, and in particular with Ireland’s largest trading partner, the UK. 

The relationship between the Brits and alcohol has always been strong and, in 2019, 23% of UK adults admitted to consuming more than 14 units of alcohol a week. However, compared to Ireland, the UK’s alcohol consumption is much lower; the average Brit consumes 9.7 litres of pure alcohol a year, compared to Ireland’s 12.75 litres. Despite Ireland’s new law, it is not the highest alcohol-consuming nation, and is outstripped by Germany on 12.79 litres, and Czechia with 14.26. For context, 9.7 litres of pure alcohol a year is about the same as 100 bottles of wine, or 0.27 bottles of wine a day, which is just over one large glass of wine.

There is unlikely to be much that can shake the UK’s appreciation for a pint down at the pub, but there have been moves from the Government recently that could indicate that the UK is not too far away from considering their own legislation on alcohol consumption. First announced in the Spring Statement, alcohol duty is set to rise by 10.1% in line with September 2022’s inflation figure, and tax rates for alcoholic products will also be changed, meaning that many store-bought alcohols will become more expensive to consumers. While the hospitality industry receives tax relief on these measures, this is in part justified by HM Revenue and Customs as recognition that pubs are supervised settings and therefore less associated with alcohol harm. In the 2022 consultation on reforms to alcohol duty, the Government stated that the reforms to alcohol duty were to “... help to address the harms caused to society and public health by excessive and irresponsible drinking.”, and to reform the system so that it “better aligns with our public health goals”.

If increases on duty and tax rates are an indication of future policy, perhaps minimum unit pricing and health warnings on alcohol are also in the realm of the possible; the Royal Society for Public Health has called for health warnings of this nature previously. At present, Government guidance simply requires product labelling to communicate low-risk drinking guidelines on their bottles, such as the number of units in the bottle or per glass. The Scottish Government has introduced minimum unit pricing, and has been watching Ireland with interest. Given the Scottish Government’s preference for a more interventionist approach to public health, the same could quickly follow in Holyrood.

The UK has form for this kind of legislation in recent years, from the introduction of the sugar tax, to plans to ban junk food adverts from television before 9PM. The Mayor of London got to be his own “pioneer” in this area, banning junk food advertising from the Transport for London network. Public health campaigners wield high levels of influence within politics and, as the Government trends towards a public health and regulated responsibility approach, further action seems possible.

The European Commission is also circling these ideas, recommending limiting online advertising and promotion, reviewing the taxation of alcohol, and health warnings on bottles to follow. Ireland may have led the way in this area, but this could be a harbinger for the EU to follow suit. For consumers, who in Ireland in particular, have been already switching to low/no-alcohol beers, this labelling could accelerate a preference change for the drinks industry to meet the demand for.  For a drinks manufacturer, wishing to export or import already bottled goods to and from the EU, these requirements, if implemented, must be adhered to. In 2019, the Labour Party announced that it would support strict and mandatory labelling of alcohol products, which could readily include health warnings, drinking guidelines, and calorie information. The Shadow Health Secretary, Wes Streeting has also lent his support to a review of alcohol harm, and has indicated that the party would expect a greater level of responsibility from the food and drink industry more generally using the “Heavy hand of regulation” if necessary to improve people’s diets. Indeed, Streeting has form for interventionist public health policy: both refusing to rule out minimum unit pricing (something he endorsed while he was president of the National Union of Students), and praised bans on junk food advertising and the sugar tax. As Labour looks towards Number 10, this public health narrative could well dominate the approach of the Department of Health and could spell repercussions for the UK’s drinks market, as well as our wine racks.

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