Ireland says it will become the world’s first country to label alcoholic drinks with comprehensive health warnings, linking them to a slew of fatal illnesses and stating their calorie count in a move that has incensed some of its trading partners and set up a clash at the World Trade Organization.
The new legislation, signed into law by health minister Stephen Donnelly on Monday, will take effect in three years to give producers the time to add the detailed warnings about calorie content, grammes of alcohol and the risk of cancer, liver disease and drinking while pregnant to drinks’ labels.
“I welcome that we are the first country in the world to take this step and introduce comprehensive health labelling of alcohol products,” Donnelly said in a statement. “I look forward to other countries following our example.”
Other countries include partial warnings, for example on drinking while pregnant, or alcohol’s link to cancer, but Ireland says none provide such wide-ranging information about the risks on the label.
Ireland, the home of Guinness, says the move is consistent with health warnings on other food and drink products. The government has said that even low levels of alcohol consumption are associated with cancer risks.
However, more than 10 countries, including the UK, US, New Zealand, Australia, Mexico and Cuba have already lodged complaints with the WTO and the move will be discussed at its next Technical Barriers to WTO Committee on June 21.
Thirteen EU member states including Italy, France and Spain have raised their concerns with the European Commission and lobby groups have called for Brussels to open infringement proceedings against Dublin for breaching EU law.
The EU has argued that Ireland’s unilateral labelling flouts a planned harmonised EU-wide approach and could distort trade.
The country, which enjoyed solidarity from its EU partners on trade rules in the wake of Brexit and this month celebrated the 50th anniversary of its membership of the bloc, has also faced criticism at home.
“There are very serious concerns from Ireland’s trading partners across the EU and beyond to the proposed alcohol labels due to their trade-distorting nature and the fact that Ireland is going it alone when harmonised labels are being planned across the EU,” Cormac Healy, director of trade body Drinks Ireland, said in a recent statement.
He questioned the need for two labelling systems, particularly as the Irish government has been a “staunch” defender of the harmonised EU market.
Ireland’s alcohol consumption peaked at more than 14 litres of pure alcohol per capita in 2001, but has fallen to 10.2 litres now. Nevertheless, Irish consumers still have a penchant for French wine and British beer.
Italy’s government and producers are irate. Albiera Antinori, president of Marchesi Antinori, one of the country’s biggest winemakers, said it made a mockery of the idea of the EU as a single market.
“The European Community is based on free trade,” she said. “The turnover of Italian wine is very small in Ireland, but it’s the principle — you cannot do something like this inside the European Community,” she said.
“It’s a limit to trade. The issue has to be addressed. They need to find a solution. If not, the whole European idea — which begins in free trade — will be at an end.”