Ireland’s plans for "alarmist" health warning labels on wine have brought howls of protest from those with vested interest who prefer to have marketing myths on the labels of their products.
Italy’s largest farmer’s association, Coldiretti, has branded the move a "direct attack" against the country, concerned that the move would have an impact on the country’s €14bn wine industry that employs 1.3m people.
Concern follows EU approval of Ireland’s plans to enact the labelling section of the Public Health (Alcohol) Act that sets out mandatory labelling requirements for all alcohol products sold in Ireland. The proposal was heavily opposed from nine countries including all the major European wine producers — France Spain, Portugal, and Italy.
Labelling will require the drinks industry to introduce labels warning of the link between alcohol consumption and liver disease and fatal cancers as well as warning against consuming alcohol while pregnant. The labels will include official public health information on alcohol consumption.
Coldiretti expressed grave concerns. Its president Ettore Prandini said the proposals "risk opening the door to alarmist and unjustified legislation, capable of negatively influencing consumer choices".
If the legislation negatively influences consumer choices, that will be based on hard evidence that is often swamped by glossy and expensive marketing campaigns that all too often paint alcohol consumption in a hazy world of sun-filled camaraderie and wellbeing.
What the campaigns do not show is the images behind-the-door, of families in thrall to the after-effects of a night of indulgence – poverty, broken homes, broken bones, lives swamped by indignity, guilt, fear, and aggression.
Alcohol Action Ireland CEO, Dr Sheila Gilheaney, agrees.
"The labelling regulations are ground-breaking and have been warmly welcomed by public health authorities globally," she said.
The measures have strong public support in Ireland with 72% of consumers agreeing that they have a right to be informed in advertising of the public health risks from alcohol use.
With 1,000 alcohol-related cancer diagnoses every year and low levels of awareness of the risks of foetal alcohol spectrum disorder and liver disease, it is critical that these measures are implemented without delay.
Rather than falling under the catcalls from the alcohol industry, as it did with legislation around banning smoking indoors in public places — Ireland can take pride in once again leading the way in public health by setting a template for other countries across the globe to follow suit.
Ireland should be the country to lead the way because of its continued heavy reliance on both alcohol consumption and binge drinking.
The most recent Healthy Ireland Survey 2022 showed that over a third (37%) of Irish adults aged 15 and over drink alcohol at least once a week with over a fifth (22%) of drinkers binge-drinking on a typical drinking occasion.
At least 50,000 children in Ireland start to drink every year and over a staggering third (37%) of 15- to 25-year-olds have an alcohol disorder.
So, what is the risk of alcohol consumption to unborn babies?
The evidence shows that around one in ten babies are born in Ireland every year with some form of foetal alcohol disorder as a result of their mother drinking alcohol during pregnancy, with an estimated 600 having the most severe effects on their brains.
The HSE estimate that around 6,000 babies are born each year in Ireland with foetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASD) and 600 with Foetal Alcohol Syndrome — the most severe form.
World Health Organization (WHO) research estimated that Ireland had the third highest rates of FASD globally, at 47.5 per 1,000 population.
The majority of these children will have no visible of disability at birth and difficulties may not manifest until pre-school or school age.
This may be why there is less of an outcry about the huge risks of alcohol consumption during pregnancy to unborn children and Ireland’s position close to the top of the league table for FASD rates, globally.
Introducing legislation around labelling of public health risks of alcohol consumption is just a first step in protecting children from harmful alcohol marketing practices. The Government passed the Public Health (Alcohol) Act in 2018, but much of the legislation around marketing has yet to be enacted.
This includes the prohibition of broadcasting of alcohol advertising before the 9pm watershed. The evidence demonstrating the harmful nature of alcohol marketing is now comprehensive.
Dr Sheila Gilheaney said: "Alcohol marketing perpetuates the social norm that alcohol is an ordinary product. Alcohol marketers misrepresent alcohol as a safe product that brings happiness, success, friendship and more, with no apparent risks or side effects.
There is public support for a 9pm watershed for alcohol adverts with 68% of people supporting a ban on what children see and hear in alcohol advertising and 66% supporting a ban on alcohol adverts being streamed on social media.
With widespread glossy marketing campaigns on television and online, is it any wonder that Irish teenagers have one of the highest rates of binge drinking in Europe and that liver disease is rising — particularly among women?
The most recent evidence from the WHO, published this month in the, shows that when it comes to alcohol consumption, there is no safe level that does not affect health.
The report states that alcohol is a toxic, psychoactive, and dependence-producing substance that has been classified as a group 1 carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer decades ago — this is the highest group, which also contains asbestos, radiation, and tobacco.
Alcohol causes at least seven types of cancer, including the most common cancer types, such as bowel cancer and female breast cancer. It causes cancer through biological mechanisms as the compound breaks down in the body, which means that any beverage containing alcohol, regardless of its price and quality, poses a risk of developing cancer.
The risk of developing cancer increases substantially the more alcohol is consumed. However, the latest available data indicate that half of all alcohol-attributable cancers in WHO Europe region are caused by "light" and "moderate" alcohol consumption.
This drinking pattern is responsible for the majority of alcohol-attributable breast cancers in women. In the EU, cancer is the leading cause of death — with a steadily increasing incidence rate — and the majority of alcohol- attributable deaths are due to different types of cancers.
This type of evidence is largely missing from the conversation around alcohol consumption in Ireland in terms of the huge harm inflicted on the fabric of society by alcohol companies in the pursuit of profit and wider market share.
We are missing the bigger picture.
It is time to face up to the reality of alcohol consumption and binge drinking in Ireland, to the influence of glossy marketing campaigns on the alcohol culture in Ireland and the need to enact legislation around marketing and labelling of alcohol products without delay.