DUBLIN – Ireland will become the first country in the world to require alcoholic beverages to display health warnings that they could potentially cause cancer, a long-awaited decision welcomed by health advocates but vociferously opposed by drinks producers worldwide.
Health Minister Stephen Donnelly on Monday signed into law the Public Health (Alcohol) (Labelling) Regulations 2023 and confirmed that the new rules would come into effect three years from now — May 22, 2026.
Ireland moved once its plans cleared two key hurdles at the European Union and World Trade Organization, which fielded complaints from winemakers, brewers and distillers worldwide but declined to block the proposed measure on competition or other grounds.
“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 written statement, noting that Ireland was also the first nation to ban smoking in enclosed public places, including pubs, back in 2004. “I look forward to other countries following our example.”
While the Irish regulations attracted critical submissions from drinks industry lobbyists worldwide, the sharpest attacks came from European winemakers, who called Ireland’s proposed labeling that wine consumption could increase cancer risks unproven and unreasonable. They called for Ireland to relent and await a possible EU-wide labeling regime — one that would, industry lobbyists hoped, exclude cancer from the list of risks.
Call for action
Civil society organizations are pushing for the Commission to get a move on with this and to come up with a proposal that includes health information on the label, rather than the off-label digital alternative preferred by industry.
“Our fear is that the data gathering exercise as part of preparation for the proposal, including the impact assessment, is unduly influenced by commercial operators. We are very concerned that this important legislation will not see the light of day before the end of the current mandate,” a coalition of civil society leaders, headed by the European Alcohol Policy Alliance (Eurocare) wrote to EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and other Commissioners and senior officials in a letter sent Monday.
“On-label nutrition and ingredient information is the most appropriate and most practical way to respect consumers’ right to know,” they wrote, underscoring the importance of the label for the EU’s Beating Cancer Plan.
Ireland expressed satisfaction — and, behind the scenes, relief — that the trade and competition authorities at EU and WTO level had chosen to back the medical evidence rather than industry warnings.
“The medical evidence is clear that a cancer risk applies even at lower levels of alcohol consumption,” said Hildegarde Naughton, Ireland’s minister of state for public health and drugs strategy.
Ireland’s main lobbyist for the drinks industry, Drinks Ireland, warned that at least some EU producers of wine and other alcoholic beverages would likely stop supplying Ireland-based retailers because they wouldn’t produce goods with packaging unique to the Irish market.
The Irish regulations will apply in all places where alcoholic drinks are sold. That will mean new labeling on each bottle and can displayed on retail shelves and, in pubs, signage behind the bar displaying the same warnings.
With additional reporting by Helen Collis and Susannah Savage. This story has been updated.