NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE
PUBLISHED: SUNDAY, OCTOBER 7, 2018 AT 12:30 AM
DUBLIN — Ireland will impose tobacco-style health warning labels on alcohol as part of a sweeping package of restrictions intended to tackle what a World Health Organization survey ranks as one of the world’s worst rates of binge drinking.
A bill that passed the Irish Parliament’s lower house Wednesday limits alcohol advertising and requires that alcoholic products be separated from retail areas inside shops. It also demands health warnings, including about links to cancer, both on bottles and at the point of sale — even in shops and visitor centers attached to breweries and distilleries, which are major tourist attractions in a country famed for its exports of stout, cider and whiskey.
The measure is the first in Ireland to treat excessive alcohol consumption as a health problem rather than as an issue of licensing or of law and order. It includes a minimum sales price per unit of alcohol and bans the advertising of alcohol in publicly owned parks and at sports events catering mainly to children.
This year, Scotland became the first nation to introduce minimum alcohol unit prices, and many other countries restrict alcohol advertising and sponsorship to varying degrees. But Ireland’s bill will be the first national law — unless successfully challenged in court — to require alcohol manufacturers to display warning labels about specific health risks.
The labels must also specify for the first time the number of calories in a beverage and the total alcohol content in grams as opposed to merely the percentage of alcohol.
Patricia Callan, director of Alcohol Beverage Federation of Ireland, an industry lobby group, said it supported the objectives of the legislation but believed it was not evidence-based and would harm an important Irish industry.
“No other country in the world requires mandatory cancer warning labels,” she said. “And imposing such a label will cause substantial reputational damage to our quality products by applying a stigma to products made in Ireland.”
Canada’s Yukon Territory introduced a similar rule experimentally last year, but soon abandoned it under pressure from the drinks industry (see illustration).
The flip side of the alcohol industry’s commercial success in Ireland, analysts say, is a culture that has traditionally tolerated heavy drinking.
Ireland is second only to Austria in rates of binge drinking, with 39 percent of Irish people 15 and older reporting heavy drinking in a one-month period, according to a 2014 survey by the World Health Organization.
The country’s Health Research Board estimated that in 2015 Irish people 15 and older consumed on average the equivalent of 41 liters of standard whiskey or vodka, or more than 116 bottles of wine, per head each year.
The World Health Organization survey also found that Ireland ranked 12th in the world in terms of average alcohol consumption, while in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, a group of developed economies, it ranked fourth, behind Estonia, Austria and France.
Alcohol Action Ireland, a group of activists and health professionals that lobbied for the new law, said that alcohol causes, on average, three deaths every day in Ireland.
and is a factor in half of all suicides and a third of cases of deliberate self-harm. Excessive drinking disrupts families and communities, it says, and is also a factor in many assaults, rapes and murders, and in two-fifths of all traffic crashes in the country.
While many Irish people are already aware of the social and health costs of alcohol consumption, the strong link between excessive alcohol use and several types of cancer has caught some by surprise.
In the course of the debate, the opposition’s health spokesman, Stephen Donnelly, reversed his party’s earlier objection to the cancer labels, admitting that he had been shocked by research that showed 500 Irish people died of alcohol-related cancers each year, “about three times the number of people who die on the roads,” he said.
The bill was fiercely resisted by a number of groups representing alcohol manufacturers, distributors and retailers. Parliamentary opposition and delays meant that almost three years have passed between the bill’s initial introduction and its passage, which was greeted by applause in the Dail, the lower house of the Irish Parliament.
Simon Harris, the health minister, joined his predecessors in championing the bill and said he would like to examine further restrictions on alcohol advertising and sports sponsorship in the future.
Ireland, despite being a small island nation of fewer than 5 million people, has experience in introducing groundbreaking health legislation. In 2004, Michael Martin, then the minister for health, stunned critics and tobacco industry lobbyists by passing the world’s first law to ban smoking in the workplace — including in bars, restaurants and offices. In the years since the law’s passage, much of the rest of the developed world has followed suit.
Now that it has passed through the Dail, the bill on alcohol will go the Seanad, or senate, for further debate. The Seanad has limited powers to delay or amend the bill. The Irish government says, however, that the constitutionality of the law could yet be contested by the drinks lobby in court, or by other member states of the European Union.
It could still be several years before warning labels appear on alcoholic beverages in Ireland, and even then there will be an exemption for alcohol bottled for export or for sale in duty free shops