The draft regulations would require drinks sold in Ireland to include additional Ireland-specific labelling information: notably health warnings as now required by the country’s 2018 Public Health Alcohol Act.
But this, in turn, would mean labelling requirements deviate from EU harmonised labelling rules – thus making it more difficult for non-Irish producers and distributors to sell their products in the country.
Leading the way on cancer warnings
According to the Irish Department of Health, 50% of Irish drinkers drink to a 'hazardous level' and one in five drinkers have an alcohol use disorder.
Under the new Irish proposals, alcohol labels would have to contain a warning to inform people of the danger of alcohol consumption; danger of drinking when pregnant and the link between alcohol and cancer (Ireland would become only the second country after South Korea to include a label warning of the link between alcohol and cancer; with Alcohol Action Ireland saying the country would take 'great pride' in leading the way in this respect).
Products would also have to contain information such as the quantity of grams of alcohol and the number of calories.
In June, Ireland informed the European Commission of its intention to introduce the new labels. Because it did not receive any formal objections from the Commission in the following six months, that equates to tacit approval.
But now the complaint put forward by spiritsEUROPE this week asks the European Commission to open a formal infringement procedure against Ireland for breaching EU law with the new regulations.
“The proposed measures represent a deviation from EU harmonized rules and a disproportionate trade barrier under EU law that would not be justifiable in light of the public evidence put forward by Ireland,” says the organization (it says that the Commission has only made available a fully redacted version of the evidence submitted by Ireland).
“We are asking the European Commission to assess the complaint and initiate a formal infringement procedure against Ireland.”
A poll from Alcohol Action Ireland last year found that 62% of consumers believe alcohol products must display health warnings that identify a risk to pregnancy, liver disease and fatal cancers; with 15% opposing the move.
The organization wants Ireland to put its proposals on hold and await EU harmonized labelling rules for alcoholic beverages: highlighting that the European Commission has already said (via its Europe’s Beating Cancer Plan) that it would look into a proposal for health related information on alcoholic beverages.
“We fully acknowledge and respect Ireland’s right to take action to ensure a high level of protection of the public health of its citizens,” says the organization. “Numerous meaningful, proportionate, and evidence-based public health measures to help reduce alcohol-related harm are available.
“However, it would appear that Ireland conducted and insufficient analysis of the proportionality of their particular policy choices on labelling, as other suitable, yet less restrictive options to trade clearly exist.”
'Inexplicable failure' of EC to act
In its complaint, the CEEV underlines the ‘clear incompatibility’ of Irish labelling rules with wine and aromatized wine products’ new labelling legislation on matters concerning the indication of alcohol content and energy value.
It adds that the Irish rules are a ‘disproportionate and unjustified barrier to trade contrary to Articles 34 and 36 of the Treaty of Functioning of the EU, thereby jeopardizing the EU Single market’.
Like spiritsEurope, it says Ireland has never properly justified the measure proposed.
It also criticizes the Irish labelling provisions for omitting to distinguish between alcohol abuse and moderate wine consumption patterns, ‘therefore failing to accurately inform consumers’.
“The incompatibility of Irish labelling rules with EU law and the fragmentation of the EU Single Market was highlighted by no less than 13 EU Member States during the EU notification procedure and, last week, by at least 8 non-EU countries during the WTO procedure,” says the organization.
“With Ireland’s lack of reaction to the many concerns raised by national governments and with the inexplicable failure of the European Commission to act and defend the EU law and EU Single market, we were left with no other choice but to present an official EU complaint to request an infringement procedure to be opened against Ireland.
“We remain convinced that it is the responsibility of the European Commission to work towards defining a harmonized and scientifically appropriate legal framework that protects the EU Single market and adequately informs consumers. As CEEV, we stand ready to proactively collaborate on this matter.”
According to the rules of procedure, the European Commission has 15 days to confirm receipt of the complaints and 12 months to assess it to decide whether to initiate a formal infringement procedure against Ireland.
Meanwhile, Ireland submitted its proposals to the World Trade Organization in February.