The Irish government have recently declared a plan to introduce new public health labelling for alcoholic drinks, including wine.
The labels give stark warnings to consumers that drinking wine leads to liver disease and cancer.
It has sparked a row within the EU, primarily from the Italian government who have described the move as “absurd” and an “attack on the Mediterranean diet”.
Apparently, there were no objections to the proposals as they passed through the European Commission but now France, Spain and Italy are challenging the proposal on the grounds that it breaches the rules of the single market and distorts trade.
Argument over abstention or moderation
It’s just the latest story in an ongoing battle between anti-alcohol campaigners and the wine industry.
The argument boils down to whether consumers should be warned not to abuse alcohol or whether they should be warned not to consume it at all.
Those in favour of the latter claim that science proves that it is a health risk to consume any amount of alcohol whereas those pushing for controls only on abuse point to the health and social benefits of moderate and informed consumption of alcohol.
The Italian wine industry highlights the fact that the Mediterranean diet, which includes moderate consumption of wine, leads to the highest longevity in the world, other than Japan.
Wine not the same as cheap alco-pops
Wine producers are concerned about public health labelling for two reasons.
The first is that it demonises wine and deters customers from drinking even small amounts when the vast majority of wine consumers do not suffer long-term illness or a reduced lifespan.
The second is that putting the health warnings on the bottles is both inappropriate and costly.
They argue that warning about the dangers of alcohol would be more effective if done through general public education and warning notices at the points of sale, rather than on every bottle.
They also point out that the reasons for buying a good bottle of wine are not the same as those for buying alco-pops or vodka.
Countries want different warnings on label
The financial problem with the health labelling is that if each government has its own rules on the wording of the warning, wine producers need to have different labels for every country they sell to.
This has long been the case when selling wine to the United States, where labels need to contain the official US health warning.
It is further complicated by the rule that no other health warnings can appear on the label. In France, wine bottles must either display the “femme enceinte” logo or the official French text warning about drinking while pregnant.
The French warning must not appear on bottles sent to the USA. Australia and New Zealand have a similar, but slightly different pregnancy warning.
In the UK, there is a non-compulsory labelling requirement based around responsible consumption.
It recommends that alcohol-content is expressed as the number of “standard units” in the bottle and that the UK government guidelines on weekly unit consumption for men and women is displayed on the label.
Post-Brexit UK proposes special labels for imported wine
Many of the big wine companies who supply the supermarkets are signed up to the scheme but most of the wines found in wine merchants are not.
However, the UK government, now that it has left the EU, is proposing making these labelling recommendations compulsory, which would mean special labels being required for all wine imported into the UK.
Because the alcohol content of wine is dependent on the vintage, especially for single-estate wines, the number of standard units in a bottle can vary from year to year.
Higher burden on smaller wineries
While having numerous different labels for the same wine depending on where it is exported may not seem problematic for a large drinks company with relatively consistent annual contracts, it poses an administrative and financial burden to smaller wineries whose volumes and export sales vary from vintage to vintage because they probably don’t know how many bottles are going to go to each country at the time that the wine is bottled.
My own experience is that it is always necessary to leave a certain number of bottles of each wine unlabelled in case I get orders from the USA.
I also have to print a number of US-specific labels in advance which inevitably leads to waste if those labels are not used.
The cost of printing a label for 500 bottles can be three times the cost of printing one for 5,000 bottles. I was recently quoted €1,25 per label for a US-specific label!
We take health risks everyday
Considering the cost and hassle of all these public health warnings, it’s understandable that the wine producers of Spain, France and Italy are questioning the necessity.
Looking at mortality rates and longevity across countries, people with a culture of drinking wine rather than beer or spirits tend to live longer.
Moderate wine consumption is linked to several aspects of healthy life by helping to prevent stomach bugs, improving digestion, reducing stress and improving mental health.
Wine has been scientifically shown to reduce the risk of blocked arteries, lower blood pressure, reduce cholesterol, delay cognitive decline and help prevent diabetes and arthritis.
Therefore the wine industry has a fair amount of evidence to back up their claim that moderate wine consumption does have some health benefits, counteracting the World Health Organisation statement that there is no safe level of alcohol consumption, just as there is no safe number of cigarettes you can smoke.
But safe limits and what most people can do without seriously risking their health are two different things. We take risks every day. All sports carry an injury risk. Exposing your skin to the sun has a risk of developing cancer.
Where does it end?
The Covid pandemic exposed the dangers of purely “following the science” by imposing lockdowns, curfews, school closures, vaccination-certificates and mask-wearing on the population in order to reduce a health risk.
All those things were detrimental to other aspects of our lives.
If public health bodies impose more warnings on labels, where does it end?
Warning on butter and cheese about the risk of obesity, the risk of heart disease on salty foods, warnings on meat saying not to barbecue it because it causes cancer?
There can’t be that many people who need reminding that drinking too much alcohol will damage their health.
Do they really need to have a health warning written on every bottle of wine they buy?