Lauri Beekmann: Curious case of alcohol labelling

European case of alcohol labelling is a good example of the results of industry lobby and effects of vested interests. An example where a logical decision is avoided and postponed without any serious explanation.

Earlier this month European Commission published a report on „mandatory labelling of the list of ingredients and the nutrition declaration of alcoholic beverages.“ According to Commission Regulation (EU) No 1169/20111 on the provision of food information to consumers exempts alcoholic beverages containing more than 1,2 % by volume of alcohol from the mandatory list of ingredients and the nutrition declaration.

Although this is one of the smaller aspects of alcohol policy, it is also one of the most expressive examples. While milk, lemonade and yoghurt have an obligation to list the ingredients, alcohol is an exception? Why on earth? As the report cites members states experts confusion „there is no justification why a soft drink should provide a nutrition declaration when the same soft drink mixed with a spirit would be exempted from such declaration.“

Report came to a conclusion that „the Commission has not identified objective grounds that would justify the absence of information on ingredients and nutrition information on alcoholic beverages,“ and that the industry should „present within a year of adoption of this report a self-regulatory proposal that would cover the entire sector of alcoholic beverages.“ And if the Commission is not satisfied with this proposal it will „launch an impact assessment to review further available options“.

So there is a clear progress, although the „launch of an impact assessment“ is a bit frightening considering that this 13-page report was first commissioned by the Commissions Article of Regulation back in 2011, it was supposed to be published in 2014 and then after several delays was finally published in 2017. Looking into the history of the whole topic, it has been all but fast decisions. Citing the same report again:

Regarding the list of ingredients, the issue goes back to the first general labelling legislation adopted at EU level, where it was provided that ‘in the case of beverages containing more than 1,2% by volume of alcohol, the Council, acting on a proposal from the Commission, shall, before 22 December 1982, determine the rules for labelling ingredients’. The Commission presented proposals to address this request in 1982 and in 1992 but the Council could not agree on any of those proposals. The Commission then presented a new proposal in February 1997, which was finally put on the agenda of a Council Working Group in December 2002. At that meeting, the majority of Member States agreed that the labelling of ingredients of alcoholic beverages should be more in line with the revised general labelling rules. Subsequent to these discussions, although the specific EU requirements for labelling ingredients, which may cause allergies or intolerances, covered also alcoholic beverages, no rules were introduced for the labelling of ingredients in general of alcoholic beverages.“

The 2011 „Regulation maintains the mandatory list of ingredients and introduces mandatory nutrition declaration (energy value and the amounts of fat, saturates, carbohydrate, sugars, protein and salt) as from 16 December 2016. Alcoholic beverages are not covered by these provisions.“

As it appears the process started at least in 1982 and since then various working groups have repeatedly decided that alcohol is different compared to other foods and that alcohol industry should be freed from these responsibilities. It is difficult to imagine that this proposal – „Let´s make an exception for alcohol“ – came without alcohol industry´s pressure. How embarrassing it might have been to someone to make that first suggestion?! And it has survived the last 35 years.

It is true that alcohol producers have started different self-regulatory initiatives which includes also labelling. But that has´nt always been their interest and position. That is confirmed also by the report itself: „The industry position on the matter has recently evolved significantly. Whereas in the past food business operators were opposed to any additional labelling requirement, today the majority of sectors acknowledge that consumers have the right to know about the content of their drinks.

Where did that enlightenment came from? And why was it absent all these years? It is easy to be skeptical that they would do it without any external pressure. It seems that alcohol industry has found their integrity and responsibility in parallel with some major global developments that are introducing or at least paving the road for stronger alcohol regulations. In 2006 European Union adopted its first ever alcohol strategy, four years later, in 2010, WHO its first ever global alcohol strategy. It is logical to conclude that we are witnessing similar developments that befell on tobacco industry. If alcohol industry would keep on opposing everything they could surely be removed from the table. As it happened to their colleagues at the tobacco side. So they are active in proposing several self regulation initiatives claiming that they are responsible enough and don´t need any statutory regulations. Main motive of it all seems to be prolonging the process and postponing the decisions made by governments and European Commission. To recap, they opposed to any labelling as long as the Commission was agreeing with them and as soon as the overall feeling started to change, they revised their „ethics“ and proposed self regulation as a way forward.

Thus far we have looked at it from the European Union level but alcohol policy is mainly a member state responsibility. For example – Ireland´s Public Health Alcohol Bill plans to introduce compulsory labels on all alcoholic drinks stating calorie count, health warnings and alcohol levels. As a reaction Ireland received opposition from 11 EU countries and the European Commission. These 11 include some of Europe’s biggest beer and wine producers and they obviously refer to ways it would affect free trade.

The Commissions report does not speak about health warnings and with these there would be even smaller developments to report. Even though ethanol is a teratogen, a carcinogen and a psychoactive addictive substance, alcohol industry is clearly not interested to openly associate their products with these health risks. Alcohol causes 7 types of cancer and European Code Against Cancer recommends that „not drinking alcohol is better for cancer prevention“ taking away room for interpretations.

One might assume that people are aware enough and that adding these known pieces of information is unnecessary. Different surveys claim otherwise. Nation after nation discover how little they understand how obesity is linked also to alcohol. Recent study from Ireland showed rather frightening situation where 66% of Irish men incorrectly believe that red wine protects against cancer. They are not just unaware of alcohol´s carcinogenic effect, but they believe it actually protects them from cancer.

Alcohol industry knows these gaps of knowledge but there is nothing that would force them to put the word cancer on their bottles.

Well, but perhaps labelling would just be ineffective? Everything that we know about human nature would in fact support that skepticism. Their unhealthy lifestyle choices are rarely changed by their understanding of what is healthy and what is not. The report claims that there is some hope. They are referring to a Commission-mandated study according to which „almost half (49%) of the participants wanted information on the energy value of alcoholic beverages, and 16% declared their intention to reduce their alcohol consumption on the basis of this information.“

But even if mandatory labelling would be rather ineffective in changing people´s behavior, it´s actually not the main point in this. It is chiefly a matter of consumer rights. People have the right to know what´s in their drink and what this drink could do to their bodies. For 35 years politicians and officials, influenced by alcohol industry, have decided that these rights are not important.

In this context, alcohol industry and political parties that speak for their interests, claim that alcohol policy is almost always rushed and there is need for more stakeholder involvement. Really?

Lauri Beekmann

Executive director of NordAN