Getting the facts – on the label and in the media 

  • Post category:Blog

In recent weeks, there has been a slew of media coverage citing concerns of Italian wine makers about Ireland’s plans to place health information including cancer, liver disease and pregnancy warnings on all alcohol products – a law passed in 2018, in the making for over a decade and with the strong support of 72% of the public. 

Of course, none of us wants to think that glass of white or red – Italian or otherwise-  of an evening could be harming us, but the facts are these: 

Ireland has the third highest rate of fetal alcohol spectrum disorder in the world.  Hospital admissions for alcohol related liver disease have trebled since 2006 with particularly concerning rates among younger people. Alcohol is responsible for 1 in 8 breast cancers and 1000 cancer diagnoses annually in Ireland. And as the World Health Organisation stated recently, about half of these cancers arise from ‘light’ or ‘moderate’ use. 

That the majority of consumers don’t know this already is of course, because the alcohol industry has been very successful at keeping it from us. Public health messaging simply can’t compete with the millions spend every year by industry on advertising, not to mention its CSR endeavours to ensure it is seen as a part of the solution when it comes to making decisions about regulation. 

What do you see when you look at a carefully crafted advert for alcohol? Words like happiness, togetherness, unbridled joy and fun, spring to mind. These will have been essential ingredients to the agencies, spending huge sums of money, to conceive of such appealing marketing outputs which of course extend to the label on the product. 

What you don’t see, are the great lengths that this very same industry will go to, at every possible opportunity, to prevent modest public health measures, to offset some of the harm their product causes, being implemented. In New Zealand and Australia for example, industry fought tooth and nail for over a decade about a mandatory, visible pregnancy warning label only now coming into operation from July 2023. 

The global alcohol producers will have been delighted at the world-wide media coverage the lament of the Italian winegrowers received. It was in stark comparison to the few rebuttal lines printed in favour of the public health measure.  

Of course, it’s not surprising that alcohol producers will defend their product to protect their own interests and profits, using junk science and claiming to have people’s best interests at heart while pushing for their own self-regulation measures. 

A recent example of misinformation came during the recent EU notification process in advance of Ireland implementing its alcohol health information labelling measures. Many of the industry submissions used the ‘complexity’ argument, i.e., that the association between alcohol and cancer risk is apparently complex and cannot be adequately explained in a single warning label and that this is a complicated scientific and policy issue that people couldn’t possibly get to grips with by giving them public health information. Some tried to downplay the link between alcohol and liver disease. Others went back to the thoroughly debunked myth that alcohol is associated with health benefits while many referred to trade issues that may occur and the cost of labelling to alcohol producers, again somewhat spurious as some countries in fact already have warning labels on alcohol products and different labels are often required for different jurisdictions/languages.  

With all of this in mind, the question becomes why do we give such credence to industry’s cries of wolf, when we know that in fact, they are the wolf? 

Just like all global industries that cause harm – tobacco, fossil fuels, weapons, the alcohol industry uses well-rehearsed tactics to undermine effective public health policymaking.  As the powerful book by David Michaels on industry’s assault on science argues – doubt is their product.  

Fortunately, a growing body of research is analysing and illuminating the ways in which industry actors frame arguments in an attempt to obfuscate their conflicts of interest. And it’s possible to see how alcohol producers and lobbyists across the globe use the same language and arguments to try and present themselves as socially responsible and committed to ‘evidence-based’ harm reduction actions.  

Alcohol industry actors have been identified as portraying alcohol policy ‘problems’ in particular ways so as to ‘play down the scale of the problems’, differentiate ‘normal’ drinking from ‘problematic’ drinking, and shift attention away from population-level understandings to individual-level framings. Much preferable for this industry to mildly exhort consumers to ‘drink responsibly’ than for the producers to accept regulations that require it to take some responsibility for the harms caused by its product. 

As public health concerns about alcohol are increasingly coming to the fore, it is up to media to report comprehensively on the issue. The usual lazy tropes about a ‘nanny state’ have been widely deployed in recent weeks. Some media analysis of why state intervention is frequently denigrated in this way when the measure might affect the industry’s bottom line would be welcome. Will we also be relying on industry myths while debating proposed liberalised alcohol licensing laws in the upcoming Sale of Alcohol Bill? 

Requiring a modest, factual label on a toxic, carcinogenic product that costs the exchequer €3.7bn annually is a step in the right direction of putting public interest above vested interest.