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Alcohol label wars: Ireland’s new warning law faces fight at World Trade Organisation

‘It is a scientific fact that there is a link between alcohol and cancer, but we’ve had to fight to say that that is true’

Standing on the stage of a European Union cancer conference this spring, a top Department of Health official presented a graph of the causes of cancer in Ireland. It showed alcohol as the fourth biggest cause of the disease, after smoking, excess weight and infection.

“This list was very useful for me two days ago when I was having what could only be called a fight with a colleague in our trade department,” Claire Gordon, manager of the Department of Health’s Tobacco and Alcohol Control Unit, told the audience of experts and officials.

The trade official had questioned whether Ireland’s new law mandating that cancer warning labels must be placed on alcohol products went against free trade principles, and whether Ireland would put such a label on meat given the country’s substantial meat exports, Ms Gordon recounted.

“Luckily I had that table, and I was able to say: alcohol causes three times as much cancer as processed meat does in Ireland,” she told the crowd.


“I understand that everybody in this room understands that it is a scientific fact that there is a link between alcohol and cancer, but we’ve had to fight to say that that is true.”

On June 21st, that fight will play out at the World Trade Organisation (WTO) in Geneva, when its Technical Barriers to Trade Committee meets with Ireland’s new alcohol labelling law on the agenda.

Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly signed the new health regulations into law last May, and they will apply from 2026, the three-year delay in place to give businesses time to adapt.

The world’s first such law, it will require any alcohol products sold in Ireland to carry warning labels that read “drinking alcohol causes liver disease” and “there is a direct link between alcohol and fatal cancers”.

As it will affect many companies worldwide that sell their products on the Irish market once it comes into force in 2026, Ireland was required to notify the WTO committee, which is a forum for the organisation’s 164 members to discuss and mediate potential disputes over regulations that might cause a barrier to trade.

Ireland’s submission notifying the committee explained that the law was necessary due to “high volumes and harmful patterns of alcohol consumption” that meant alcohol caused an estimated 4.8 per cent of all Ireland’s deaths.

“The Irish population is not aware of the health risks of alcohol,” the submission continued, adding that 79 per cent of the public did not know of the link to breast cancer, and that a poll had shown high support for labels that carry information about the risks.

The law is “a proportionate response to the serious threat to health posed by alcohol consumption in Ireland”, it concluded.

Under international trade agreements, countries are free to introduce their own national laws on matters such as public health, even if they are awkward for importers, as long as they are proportionate and do not create unnecessary barriers to trade.

However, in the meeting several WTO member countries are expected to argue that Ireland’s law goes too far. It’s the start of a process that can ultimately lead to the opening of a formal trade dispute, if the concerns of the objecting countries are not satisfactorily resolved.

So far the United States, the Dominican Republic and Cuba have declared they will make “comments” about the law, and several more countries are believed to have seconded their concerns.

In a letter of objection representing the “concerns of the producers and exporters of Cuban rum”, the government of Cuba accused Ireland’s law of being an obstacle to the free circulation of goods in the EU single market that “creates disproportionate and unnecessary barriers to trade”.

The proposed labels are “disproportionate” and “alarmist”, the Cubans argued, adding that the labelling requirement would be too expensive for producers.

In the past, countries have used the WTO’s Technical Barriers to Trade Committee as a forum to air arguments favoured by the alcohol industry to discourage countries from applying health warning labels on alcohol, according to a study published in 2022.

The study, published in medical journal the Lancet, reviewed committee documents going back to 1995. It found that 10 countries that tried to put in place stricter alcohol labels were met with opposition from WTO members in the form of arguments used by the alcohol industry, including that moderate drinking is not a problem or is even beneficial to health.

Earlier this year, the World Health Organisation published a statement in the Lancet in an attempt to dispel such ideas. It declared that “there is no safe amount” of alcohol consumption, and that half of all alcohol-attributable cancers in the WHO European region were caused by “light” and “moderate” drinking.

“The risk to the drinker’s health starts from the first drop of any alcoholic beverage,” the WHO’s Dr Carina Ferreira-Borges said.

The WHO’s unequivocal position played a role in Ireland’s plans getting this far.

Before having to notify the WTO, Ireland had to similarly tell the European Commission, which could have objected to the law if it believed it was disproportionate and interfered with the ease of free trade in the EU single market.

However, the commission did not object.

“Data reported by the Irish authorities shows a significant incidence of deaths caused by alcohol-related disorders on the total number of deaths,” spokesman Stefan de Keersmaecker told the Irish Times, noting the position of the WHO.

“Ireland has sufficiently demonstrated that the measures are justified to protect public health within its territory.”

The commission also views the measure as being in line with its Beating Cancer Plan, a policy championed by president Ursula von der Leyen that includes an aim to reduce harmful alcohol use by 10 per cent by 2025.

Commission officials ideally want to standardise food and drink labels in the EU, but this is a long and hard fight as it divides member states. Plans for alcohol labelling are at an early stage; the commission is currently gathering evidence on whether such warnings are effective.

The fact that the commission did not intervene to object was viewed as tacit consent, and this caused uproar among the EU’s major wine exporters, led by Italy, France and Spain.

There was particular clamour in Italy, where the nationalist government’s foreign minister Antonio Tajani decried Ireland’s law an “attack on the Mediterranean diet” and on Italian identity.

In March, wine industry lobby the European Committee of Wine Companies filed a formal complaint to the commission, urging it to take infringement proceedings against Ireland for breaking single market rules.

Ireland was a global frontrunner in introducing a smoking ban in public places in 2004, when Micheál Martin was minister for health. With him once again at the top of government nearly two decades on, the country is now an early mover in alcohol warnings.

Behind the vehemence of the reaction against Ireland’s law, officials say, is a fear within the alcohol industry that Ireland could act as a precedent that could lead to alcohol going the way of tobacco, with pervasive warning labels, and even plans for a national phase-out under way in New Zealand.

“We are very grateful and indeed somewhat surprised that our proposals got through that EU assessment process successfully. Somewhat surprised is an understatement,” Ms Gordon told the cancer conference back in February.

“I think it’ll be warmly welcomed by the WTO . . . that’s a lie,” she quipped. “The next thing is for everybody else to follow.”