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Finn McRedmond: When did we begin to become such puritans?

Plans to label wine as cancerous are the latest way of finger-wagging at an oafish public who don’t know how to look after themselves

I am sure this is not the first time – and it certainly won’t be the last – that wine has been the cause of a diplomatic row. Ireland’s plan to put cancer warnings on wine bottles has been branded a “direct attack” on the nation of Italy by the country’s largest farmer’s association, Coldiretti.

Salute to the angry Italian vintners and their reasonable upset at having their produce labelled as cancer-causing, as though it might be as destructive as cigarettes. The Italian wine industry is enormous and employs over a million people. They have a lot to sell, and it’s probably easier to shift bottles sans the death bells. And, in the spirit of fair play, the Italians are yet to slap similar warning labels on Irish produced sausages and bacon.

What a joyless policy this is. When did we become such puritans? It is right to mount some pushback to the public health hall-monitors seemingly hell bent on creeping into every crevice of society. And this remains true irrespective of the rage levels of Italian farmers (although, as a rule, it’s not a fight I would be confident of winning).

Of course we know the facts. The World Health Organisation goes as far to say there is no safe amount of alcohol consumption. It is true that Ireland – much like Britain – could take a leaf out of their Mediterranean friends’ playbook, and reassess its relationship with alcohol. You would struggle to find anyone who doesn’t think that even just a little bit. The warning labels will probably be influential to a degree. And the public will know, even more than it does now, about the harms associated. And then what?


This, as is always the case, is not about the alcohol at all. Wine has just found itself as the topic du jour, the latest vehicle for finger-wagging at the oafish public who don’t know how to look after themselves. Not long ago this exact same fight was playing out over putting calorie counts on menus. Outrage at young people sitting on the banks of the Grand Canal during the stiflingly hot days of lockdown represents the acme of the phenomenon.

All of these things were supposedly driven by a concern for the health of the nation. Why, then, is it so hard to shake the sense that it seems equally as motivated by the desire to tell everyone off?

We shouldn’t so readily forget that public health systems have now been explaining to us for decades that our health is about more than our physical bodies

Wine gives you cancer, burgers make you fat, going to a concert will give you Covid. Three statements that are reasonably hard to disagree with. But they are also ones that refuse to acknowledge the obvious truths that burgers are delicious, and that it’s fun to drink wine with your friends, and that live music isn’t just a frivolity but an important part of being a person. At some point, someone in charge of public health is going to have to accept that enjoyment is the central tenet to a life well-lived, not a mere by-product of it.

But here we are. Adding to the very long list of things – like cars, coal, heating, air conditioning, plastic, red meat, processed meat, burning candles, sleep (too much), sleep (not enough) – that don’t have totally neutral impacts on our health, and therefore become fair game for constant regulation.

We shouldn’t so readily forget that public health systems have now been explaining to us for decades that our health is about more than our physical bodies. There cannot be a country in the West that hasn’t undergone loud and incessant campaigns advocating for better mental healthcare. They say our brains and our thoughts are as much a part of our overall health as our arms and our legs and our livers.

It is interesting, then, when suddenly that argument no longer seems to apply. We know that calorie counts on menus – perhaps the most salient example – are anxiety-inducing to those recovering from eating disorders. And we know that eating disorders have a high mortality rate. Whatever happened to our mental health being as important as our physical condition?

The problem is that it is rather hard to argue against the overweening influence of public health departments in our lives without succumbing to the accusations that you do not care about the lives the measures are intended to save. But this is a terribly narrow view of what constitutes public health, and something we should have got a grip on a long time ago.

Caring about human life is not just a process of extending its length but also increasing its quality

We know that public health is about balancing sensibilities and political priorities. We know that it is not something that can be reduced to a simple numbers game, but should be subject to countless other metrics. And we know that caring about human life is not just a process of extending its length but also increasing its quality. If anything good came from the pandemic, it must be that it drummed these lessons into us.

All of this is to say that it was never about the wine. Drink wine, or don’t drink wine. But resist the urge to have your life explained to you via warning labels and alarm bells that the pizza you’re about to consume is not good for your cholesterol. It’s probably very good for your mood.