As with its decision to implement a ban on cigarette smoking in public places, Ireland is ahead of the EU curve on the issue of requiring warning labels to be placed on alcohol products. With 72% of Irish consumers welcoming the initiative and the EU Commission recently giving it a green light, it seems likely that Ireland will press ahead with enforcing the measure.
Section 12 of Ireland’s Public Health (Alcohol) Act 2018 includes a provision requiring health warning labels to be placed on alcohol products. In June 2022, Ireland took first steps towards implementation of that provision by notifying the draft Public Health (Alcohol) (Labelling) Regulations 2022 (the Draft Regulations) to the European Commission.
This so-called Technical Regulation Information System (TRIS) notification was required under the Single Market Transparency Directive 2015/1535 (SMTD), which seeks to ensure transparency of technical regulations adopted at a national level and reduce the risk of fragmentation of the single market by creating different marketing standards and requirements at national level. This is particularly relevant for food labelling, which is harmonized at the EU level, by, amongst others, the Food Information to Consumers Regulation (EU) 1169/2011. This Regulation requires certain national proposals for technical regulations, such as the Irish labelling proposal, to obtain a TRIS notification to allow Member States to comment on them and if necessary, raise concerns. There is a three month standstill period following notification during which the notifying country cannot adopt the technical regulation, which is extended by another three months if the Commission or a Member State submits a detailed opinion. If a detailed opinion is received, the notifying country must inform the Commission of the measures it intends to take to address the issues raised in the opinion.
Following Ireland’s TRIS notification on 21 June 2022, nine Member States submitted detailed opinions extending the standstill period to six month period, which expired on 22 December. Despite the objections raised, the EU Commission did not block the proposal.
What Happens Next?
The Irish government has notified the World Trade Organisation (WTO), as the new labelling system might be considered an obstacle to international trade. The deadline for comments is the 7 May 2023.
Domestically, once the measure enters into force, there will be a three-year phase-in period for the alcohol industry to introduce the new labeling on their product packaging.
Once implemented, all alcohol products in Ireland would be required to carry three warnings:
- that alcohol causes liver disease;
- that alcohol is a risk to the fetus during pregnancy; and
- that there is a drink link between alcohol and fatal cancers.
All licensed alcohol outlets will be required to carry similar warnings visibly within the premises and indicate to customers that information about the calorific value of alcohol products is available on request.
The Draft Regulations set out in some detail the size and clarity of the notice that alcohol containers will have to carry (including provisions relating to the form, colour and font type and size) and the Schedules to the Regulations show examples of the type of notice that will be required.
The Schedules also contain information on the restrictions on alcohol advertising envisaged by the Regulations, including a list a places and venues in which such advertising will not be permitted (on public transport; within 200 metres of a school; or at sporting venues for example) as well as restrictions on the times at which advertising may be broadcast on television and cinemas.
No Safe Alcohol Limit?
The Irish Government will feel that its position is supported by a recent WHO Report, published in January’s Lancet Public Health, which argues that there is no safe level of alcohol consumption that does not affect health. However, the Irish proposal is strongly opposed by a Coalition of member states led by Italy, France and Spain and the Assembly of European Wine Regions (AREV) who, both at the 30 January meeting of EU agricultural ministers and in a Statement released on 1 February argued the case that the whole of the EU should move forward together on this issue, given the implications for employment, supply chains and rural communities. The Coalition believes it would be preferable to adopt a common EU-wide approach to alcohol labelling instead of a series national decisions.