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Could your bottle of beer soon carry scary, cigarette-style warning labels?

The Health Minister will get the power to set the size of warnings on alcohol products.

The new Public Health (Alcohol) Bill has been under consideration by the government since late 2015 but has not yet been enacted.

It is a far-reaching bill with new legislation on aspects such as minimum pricing, advertising and product labelling.

You can catch the first two parts of our series covering the important aspects of this bill here (on advertising), and here (on minimum pricing). This week we look at how alcohol labels will change, and ask if this bill is what is needed to tackle the problem of alcohol in Ireland.

WHEN YOU BUY a pack of cigarettes in Ireland, around 65% of the box is taken up with health warnings.

It tells you that “smoking kills” and that “tobacco smoke contains over 70 substances known to cause cancer” along with a graphic warning of what smoking can do to our teeth, lungs and throat.

90371124_90371124 James Reilly showing off the planned plain packaging for cigarettes back in 2015 Source: Sasko Lazarov/Photocall Ireland

The exact details haven’t been ironed out yet, but the Public Health (Alcohol) Bill is set to bring in similar health warnings to cans and bottles of beer, wine and spirits in Ireland.

Unlike minimum pricing which is clear cut on what it’ll bring, labelling will be much harder for the government to introduce, with legal action from our EU neighbours among the risks to its implementation at the moment.

What it says

Under the section of the bill on “labelling of alcohol products and notices in licensed premises”, it says that all alcohol products manufactured, imported or sold in the State must contain:

  • A warning that is intended to inform the public of the danger of alcohol consumption
  • A warning that is intended to inform of the dangers of alcohol consumption when pregnant
  • The number of calories in the product, and the number of grams in the product
  • A link to a public health website, to be set up by the HSE, which will give information on alcohol and other health-related harms

Furthermore, anywhere that sells alcohol – both pubs and off-trade – will be required to display these warnings.

Also, the industry will have a three-year period to prepare for the implementation of labelling.

However, it is here where it gets complicated. The bill has little detail on what these warnings will actually look like. It does say, however, that it will be up to the Minister of Health to decide.

The Minister will be able to decide the “size, colour and font type of the printed material on the warning concerned”.

90246441_90246441 Source: Sasko Lazarov/Rollingnews.ie

In other words, if the bill was in effect today, Simon Harris could decide how large the warnings would be on alcohol packaging. He could make them part of the small print, or he could place them as prominently as cigarette packaging.

When TheJournal.ie asked the Department of Health what its plans were when this labelling requirement is brought in, they said that they hadn’t been finalised yet.

A spokesperson for the department said: “[We have] commissioned research regarding health warning and information labelling on alcohol products, which will inform the decision making process.

Regulations in this regard will be published after the Bill is enacted.

So, for now, the government will “wait and see” what they’ll do once the bill passes.

One amendment put forth by senators at committee stage could clarify the issue, if accepted by government. A group of senators, including Frances Black and David Norris, proposed a warning “to inform the public of the direct link between alcohol and fatal cancers”.

In relation to a section of the bill which outlines that the onus will be on the Minister to prescribe the size, colour and font type, they put forward the following:

Where at least one third of the printed material will be given over to evidence-based health warnings.

That amendment would bring alcohol packaging more in line with that of cigarettes, with clearly visible-printed warnings on the label.

Systems where drinks companies have voluntarily placed health warnings on their products have been introduced in the likes of the UK and Australia, where warnings take up a small portion of the packaging.

Australia Booze Battle Source: Rick Rycroft AP/Press Association Images

As for if it will work, there is scientific evidence both for and against such actions being successful.

Any exceptions to the rule?

None.

Minister of State for Health Promotion Marcella Corcoran Kennedy has been unequivocal that this part of the legislation will apply across the board, with no exceptions.

When a written question was asked by Fine Gael TD Brendan Griffin regarding possible exemptions for the labelling requirements, she had this response:

The department is not providing an exemption from the labelling provisions in the Public Health (Alcohol) Bill. The labelling provisions will apply to all retailers. [This bill] provides a 3 year lead in time for the introduction of the labelling provisions.

When Fianna Fáil TD Timmy Dooley queried whether an imported alcohol product could have its health warning attached after it arrived in the country, Corcoran Kennedy responded:

“Under the legislation, it will be an offence for an individual to manufacture, import or sell to a person in the State an alcohol product that does not comply with the labelling requirements.

All alcohol products imported into the State must be correctly labelled prior to being removed from the warehouse and placed on sale in the State.

Why this is important

A range of amendments were being discussed by senators before the bill conspicuously disappeared from debate in the Houses of the Oireachtas towards the end of last year.

Members of both houses have repeatedly asked the government when it will be brought back, but its burial from debate was closely followed with a Fine Gael parliamentary meeting where concerns were raised about the advertising provisions in the bill.

As a result, amendments proposed to the bill remain in limbo, until the government reintroduces the legislation again.

A warning on cancer was proposed to be added to the bill by senators, and although it has not been finalised yet, it is something that the Irish Cancer Society was very keen on.

Its head of services and advocacy, Donal Buggy, said: “We are asking the bill go further in its labelling provisions and for a specific warning on alcohol products that highlight the link between alcohol and fatal cancers.

People are simply not aware of the cancer risk associated with drinking alcohol and we need to ensure they are presented with the facts… Of the 900 new cancers each year related to alcohol, half of them could be prevented if people drank within the Department of Health’s guidelines.

Cancer deaths study Source: Dominic Lipinski PA Wire/PA Images

In terms of guidelines, this would equate to 17 units a week for men (around 7 pints of beer, cider or stout) and 11 units for women.

Buggy added: “We know from experience in the fight against tobacco that public health legislation like the smoking ban works and that is why it is so important this Bill is enacted as soon as possible”.

The President of the Royal College of Physicians in Ireland and member of the Alcohol Health Alliance, Professor Frank Murray, says that the provisions contained in this bill are essential to deal with the harms caused by alcohol in Ireland.

He said: “The [latest] Health Research Board data demonstrates that, between 1995-2013, the rate of increase in alcoholic liver disease trebled among 15-34 year olds… It also shows that as more women consume alcohol in greater amounts, this is having an adverse impact on their health.

One in 10 breast cancers between 2001 and 2010 was attributable to alcohol.

“I urge all Oireachtas members to urgently adopt this important piece of public health legislation and all of its contents, including establishing a minimum price for alcohol and introducing health labelling.”

Trouble ahead

It’s already been flagged that Ireland could face big trouble with its EU neighbours on this provision for labelling.

The state is subject to common free trade laws and other countries in the bloc feel that bringing in a labelling requirement could impede this.

A key part of the campaign for Britain to leave the EU last year was the idea that Brexit would allow the UK to “take back control” of its affairs.

The idea of taking back control of its own laws got a section to itself in the white paper on Brexit that was recently published by the UK government.

While Ireland has been a net beneficiary from being part of the EU, as shown in this FactCheck from theJournal.ie, the country is subject to regulations of free trade that govern all member states.

And, in terms of labelling, other EU countries feel that this new bill could act as a barrier to free trade.

Countries, such as France and Germany, feel that the move would have negative implications for importing its nation’s products into Ireland.

Fine Gael MEP Brian Hayes explained: “If the legislation is introduced, manufactures who import alcohol into Ireland would be required to include health labels on their products.

“11 EU Member States have submitted objections to the legislation as well as the European Commission stating that the legislation would create barriers to free trade.

The Commission issuing warning shots against Ireland on this issue denies the principle of subsidiarity and hampers public policy making in Ireland. It sets a dangerous precedent and must be opposed.

Despite EU concerns, Corcoran Kennedy told the Dáil that, in regard to this legislation, Ireland had adhered to its obligations and that the bill is free to go through the houses of the Oireachtas.

Fine Gael Think Ins Frances Fitzgerald (far left) has indicated that problems could arise in free trade, while Corcoran Kennedy (to her left) remains in support. Source: Laura Hutton/Rollingnews.ie

This matter was complicated, however, by a statement made by Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald in the Dáil last October, when asked about a different system whereby all alcohol sold would have a unique code that could be traced back to the buyer.

She said: “In the case of imports from EU countries, any additional labelling requirements would be regarded as infringing internal market rules relating to free movement of such products”.

That certainly raises further problems. If additional labelling on alcohol on imported alcohol products would, as Fitzgerald suggests, infringe rules related to free trade, Ireland leaves itself open to potential legal action over this provision of the bill.

Last week, Fitzgerald also said in the Dáil that Minister Corcoran Kennedy had taken time to re-examine elements of the bill which some felt would be “unduly punitive, particularly for small enterprises”.

As we pointed out last week in relation to minimum pricing, it is not the only part of the bill which could be challenged in court.

Any other problems?

Again, as we’ve seen with other aspects of the bill, Ireland is taking the lead in some respects among other European countries in the steps they are taking with this alcohol bill.

We don’t have hard evidence to show all of its provisions will reduce alcohol-related harms because we’re among the first countries to introduce them.

The potential legal implications notwithstanding, the requirement to label all of their products will have a damaging effect on exports for Irish companies, according to the alcohol industry.

Growth in craft breweries Source: Hannah McKay PA Wire/PA Images

The head of the Alcohol Beverage Federation of Ireland Ross Mathuna told TheJournal.ie that its job of supporting local brewers and distillers in creating jobs was incompatible with some aspects of the bill.

He said: “If you’re trying to launch a new product in Ireland, you may have to carry health warnings for products you want to sell abroad. We should standardise the label as much as possible but a label for here and a different label for somewhere else makes no sense.

We want the legislation to have its intended effect. But don’t kill the industry here – an industry which is supporting a lot of jobs.

In terms of “intended effect”, then-Minister for Health Leo Varadkar made the government’s intentions clear when he published the bill in late-2015.

He said: “This Bill addresses alcohol as a public health issue for the first time by tackling price, availability, marketing, advertising, and labelling.

By taking this approach and confronting the problem in a wide range of ways, I am confident that we can make a huge difference to public health.

So when’s it all going to happen?

Soon, according to Taoiseach Enda Kenny.

The bill disappeared from debate in the House of the Oireachtas before Christmas, and opposition members have been pressing the government on when they’ll get a final chance to debate the bill before TDs vote on it.

Even on last week’s most tumultuous of Valentine’s Days, Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin found the time to ask the Taoiseach this question, amid the Maurice McCabe controversies:

Prior to Christmas, there was significant concern and debate on the Public Health (Alcohol) Bill… Will the Taoiseach indicate when it will be brought back for discussion, debate and passage through the House?

Kenny replied that he believed Minister Corcoran Kennedy would reintroduce the bill to to the house “quickly”.

Having said that, the bill was last debated properly in the Seanad in 2016, and the extensive lobbying being done on aspects of the bill, particularly in terms of advertising and shop layout, is coupled with the Tánaiste’s statement that parts of the bill “are being examined again”.

The bill has ambitious aims, and sets out an unprecedented collection of ways to tackle the public health issue of alcohol.

In its current form, it will radically change how alcohol is shown to us, how much it costs and what its packaging looks like.

Barring any major changes to the bill being proposed by government, and provided they follow through and bring it forward again quickly, it has the potential to change Ireland’s attitude to alcohol.

Whether it actually will, however, remains to be seen.

Read: The behind-the-scenes machinations shaping the government’s new alcohol laws

Read: 12 cans of Heineken for €20? This is how minimum pricing could affect your pocket

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