Wine labels like cigarettes: a 14 billion market at risk in Italy

The battle over health warnings for wine, beer and spirits labels rages on in Europe. In fact, from January Ireland will be able to decide whether to put warnings on alcohol labels such as alcohol consumption causes liver disease, alcohol and fatal cancers are directly linked and on the risk of consumption during pregnancy. Warnings that follow the model of those currently found on cigarette packets and which, if not appropriately contextualised, would affect an industry that is worth 14 billion euros a year in Italy alone and that creates jobs for over 1.3 million workers.

The Irish initiative

The story began last June, when Ireland had notified the regulation on the so-called health warnings for wine, beer and spirits to the European Commission. Now the moratorium period for the Brussels authorities to oppose this kind of initiative is over, and without any opposition from the European executive body having been found, the go-ahead has arrived through a sort of tacit assent. The debate on this kind of alert began in 2021 when the European Commission discussed introducing health warnings on the labels of alcohol bottles as part of the so-called Cancer plan, in addition to detailed ingredients. On 16 February last year, the European Parliament had said yes only to the obligation to introduce nutritional values ​​and the list of ingredients (a subject that has been under discussion for years), and not to health protection indications, replaced by a more general recommendation for responsible use. Nine European countries had openly sided against the health warnings, including Italy – but also the major European producers, including France and Spain – which had hailed the rejection as a success in defending their products and related markets .

Escape forward

Now the concern is that the example of Dublin could push other states to adopt similar labels, before common initiatives are reached within the Community. The president of the Unione Italiana Vini (UIV), Lamberto Frescobaldi, stated that the green light represents a dangerous leap forward by a member country and that the lack of action by the European Commission jeopardizes the principle of free circulation of goods in within the Community and sets an extremely dangerous precedent in terms of labeling alarmist messages on wine consumption. We fear that the Directorate-General for Health will want to adopt this approach at the European level in the coming months, leaving free initiative to the individual member countries in the meantime, in order to clear the customs systems adopted without a prior public debate at the European level.

Coldiretti on the barricades

The Irish precedent could in fact spur other countries to follow the same path, especially in Northern Europe marked by heavy alcohol consumption. But Italian producers immediately raise the barricades in defense of the heritage of the national food and wine tradition. Coldiretti, at the forefront of the battle against this type of legislation, speaks of a direct attack on Italy, the world’s leading producer and exporter with over 14 billion in turnover, more than half of which abroad.

A complex story

After all, the game of labeling alcohol has been played for several years and on various tables. Starting from the headquarters of the World Health Organization (WHO) in Geneva, which has been recommending the adoption of health labels for some time. And in Brussels the battle was reignited after – in its 2021 cancer plan – the European Commission announced proposals to reduce the harmful consumption of alcohol, including health warnings on bottles. A year later, the initiative landed in Strasbourg, where the European Parliament, after an agonizing debate, held back on the subject, saying it knows more information on the label for alcohol, without deeming the health information necessary.

New rules at European Union level

Crossroads of comparison for Dublin, which had already obtained the EU green light – first in 2016 and then in 2018 – for ever more stringent measures (tax and price) aimed at reducing alcohol consumption. Now the third act to counter what for the Irish authorities is a national health emergency concerns labelling, a very delicate matter for the internal market. In June, Eire notified the EU of a draft law to put warnings on bottles about the health risks of alcohol consumption and its direct link to deadly cancers. Rome, Paris and Madrid, together with six other capitals, tried to oppose it by putting the protest on paper with an opinion sent to Brussels which highlighted how the Irish exception discriminates against producers from other EU countries, forced to adopt a double label. And the criticisms don’t end there: there are several voices, even from the private sector, which do not understand the green light for the Irish law when it was the EU executive itself that announced its intention to proceed closely with new rules at Community level. A circumstance that could now discourage Ireland itself from taking initiatives in the short term.

The chorus of protests

Federvini also calls for a stop to the silence of the EU executive and appeals to the Government to study every possible action to oppose a rule that contrasts with common sense and reality. For Cia-Agricoltori Italiani, the disconcerting scenario compromises the work done so far at the community level with the Cancer Plan. The president of Confagricoltura Massimiliano Giansanti then speaks of a prohibitionist drift. And the Alleanza Cooperative Agroalimentari speaks of bewilderment: The Commission’s decision to go ahead with the Irish draft law on health warnings leaves us truly bewildered. With this action, Ireland violated and questioned the principles of the single market, within whose perimeter the wine sector is regulated and which should guarantee, through the Common Market Organization, a precisely ‘common’ application, of European principles and rules in all the Member States, explains the Wine Coordinator of Alleanza Cooperative Agroalimentari, Luca Rigotti. The synthesis for a fair compromise offered by De Castro, according to whom the way forward is the one already indicated: more transparent labeling systems for moderate and responsible consumption and a categorical no to equate wine to cigarettes. But with the s of Brussels already in his pocket, Ireland is only waiting for the decision of the World Trade Organisation.

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Wine labels like cigarettes: a 14 billion market at risk in Italy