In recent weeks there has been a sustained undermining of the Government’s proposed Public Health Alcohol Bill, and specifically, the measures to regulate the labelling of alcohol products to include nutritional and health warning information.
Much of this negative comment has emanated from artisan producers of alcohol products. These fledgling micro brewers and distillers, who in a parody of ‘David and Goliath’ roles, seek to maximise a doubt in the public’s mind about the Bill’s efficacy and instigate further delay on the legislation’s enactment.
The speculative commentary recites doomsday prospects for our ‘small alcohol producers’ whose 1% market share will either be ‘destroyed’ or detrimentally damaged. These outcomes are grossly exaggerated and hope to court the minds of edgy legislators, always mindful of mollifying an entrepreneurial constituent.
Seemingly, protecting public health must always come second.
The Public Health Alcohol Bill contains a range of measures, each designed to work together to reduce alcohol consumption and so lessen the impact of alcohol related harms. It will protect children, families and communities from harms, and create an environment that supports a low-risk approach to alcohol consumption.
In a society where it is known that alcohol is having a significantly negative impact on our social and economic health and wellbeing, many public health advocates, officials and government, have determined that to affect real change we must enact a range of public policy measures that can help achieve a reduction in alcohol consumption.
Fundamentally, this does pose a conflict with business interest, who only foresee continued growth. Business, and all the benefits that flows from its enterprise, make a significant contribution to a progressive society but its facilitation simply is not equal to advancing the health and wellbeing of our nation.
However, this does not mean that the set of measures such as adequate labelling, are extreme or disruptive. The Bill proposes a three-year transitional period that allows businesses adequate time for existing stocks to be used and new, compliant labels, to be advanced.
Many alcohol producers in Ireland, big and small, are meeting special labelling requirements to be compliant with the demands of exports target markets and largely have no difficulty with complying to regulations prescribed in law.
Irish alcohol products – Gunpowder Gin and Jameson Whiskey with labels compliant with US and Israeli legislative health warning requirements.
Only produce sold in Ireland will require the proposed new labelling provisions.
All exports will be exempt from the regulations proposed. Any product compliant with the new regulation, will also be compatible with the EU, and so exportable to the other 27 Member States.
Already, hundreds of successful artisan food producers are meeting similar labelling requirements. As an example, if a fruit juice producer in rural Carlow can manage to label its products with detailed health, nutritional and ingredient information, why can’t alcohol producers do the same?
Many fledgling alcohol entrepreneurs complain that government, rather than imposing consumer regulations on them, should be supporting their enterprise. Yet, 93 microbreweries and distillers were given €2.12m in supports from Local Enterprises offices, and 16 microbreweries and distillers received a further €1.7m grants and equity investment from Enterprise Ireland. Additionally, 73 of the operating microbreweries also benefit annually from a €4m excise duty rebate. That’s a lot of public money subsidising a microbrewing sector worth €52m (Bord Bia, 2016).
Since 2010, the WHO has endorsed labelling of alcohol products as an ‘essential tool to increase awareness and reduce alcohol related harm’. This has lead the Codex Commission to begin a process to establish a global standard on alcoholic beverage labelling including health warnings: carcinogenicity.
At a time of deep crisis in our own health services, where a lack of information has proven to be so controversial, is Irish business really proposing that alcohol products be exempt from such principles?
To the global alcohol companies, who control 99% of the market yet have selected the smallest to battle out front, the very idea that alcohol products would display a direct link between alcohol and fatal cancers is a commercial outrage.
The International Agency for Cancer Research – an agency of the UN-WHO, has affirmed alcohol as a Group One carcinogen. In Ireland, one in eight breast cancers are directly related to alcohol. Every year around 900 people are diagnosed with alcohol-related cancers and around 500 people die from these diseases.
A recent survey – Global Drugs Survey, published on The Guardian (8 May) demonstrates that such warnings, which state ‘drinking less reduces your risk of seven different sorts of cancers’ would impact on the consumption of 40% of those surveyed.
And here in lies a crucial point: better informed consumers will act more rationally. Knowledge is power! Which begs the question, why would alcohol producers not want to inform consumers? Is it because it will, just as regulation on tobacco did, likely reduce consumption and lead to better public health outcomes – I think we could all raise a glass to that.
Head of Communication and Advocacy, Alcohol Action Ireland.
Edited version first published on FORA.ie 19th May 2018