Ireland Hopes to Crack Down on Excessive Drinking With Health Warning Labels on Alcohol

A pub in Carrick-on-Shannon, Ireland. Ireland is second only to Austria in rates of binge drinking, according to a World Health Organization survey.
Paulo Nunes dos Santos for The New York Times

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 on Wednesday limits alcohol advertising, 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 that 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.

The flip side of the alcohol industry’s commercial and marketing success in Ireland, analysts say, is a culture that has traditionally tolerated, and sometimes even encouraged, heavy drinking.

Ireland is second only to Austria in rates of binge drinking, with 39 percent of Irish people over 15 reporting heavy drinking in a one-month period, according to a 2014 survey by the World Health Organization.

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SOURCE: New York Times, Ed O’Loughlin