The lobbying interference of Big Alcohol to stop Ireland’s health warnings once again shows the need to protect public health policy from alcohol industry interference, write Emil Juslin and Lisa Österman of IOGT-NTO.
In this timely opinion column Emil and Lisa share insights from Brussels about how the alcohol lobby tried to interfere and derail Ireland’s alcohol warning label through the European Commission.
Emil and Lisa also share a solutions for how the alcohol lobby machine can be contained and public health policy making better protected.

By Emil Juslin & Lisa Österman

Big Alcohol wants to keep people in the dark about the dangers of their products

In June 2022, Ireland finally proceeded with its initiative to introduce health and cancer warnings on alcohol products by presenting its proposal in full to the European Commission. This makes Ireland the first EU member state to do so. The proposal aims to strengthen knowledge among citizens on how alcohol harms their bodies by providing clear, evidence-based health information. 

While the decision has been warmly welcomed by the public health community, it also has, once again, mobilized the lobby machine of Big Alcohol that does everything they can to avoid that the dangers their products pose are exposed. 

Right after the Ireland procedure got underway, we could read that members of the cabinet for the European Commissioner for Agriculture met with alcohol giant Diageo to discuss the Irish proposal. Dublin informed the European Commission of its intention to implement alcohol warning labels, as part of implementing the Public Health Alcohol Act, which started a six-month moratorium period. In this period, the cabinet also met with the European wine lobby organisation, CEEV, to discuss labelling. Further, it has also been reported that other alcohol companies have met with high ranking officials in Brussels.

The alcohol lobby machine revealed

In the new report Uncorking Big Alcohol in the EU, IOGT-NTO and Movendi International reveal that this is not the first time Big Alcohol has engaged in lobbying to interfere with the Irish initiative to implement alcohol health warnings.

The friendly relationship between the wine industry and the agricultural division of the EU Commission is alarming.

Emil Juslin and Lisa Österman

When Ireland first presented its proposal in 2018, civil dialogues were held between the wine industry and the agricultural parts of the EU Commission, DG AGRI. In the meetings, the industry voiced demands that the EU Commission would put a stop to the health warnings, claiming that it was an attack on their products and that they feared that it would set a precedence for other countries to follow. 

Notably, these talking points from 2018 are the same that a few countries have pushed during the six months moratorium period to do the dirty work for the wine industry, as Movendi International has reported.

While it is nothing new that Big Alcohol fights public health-based alcohol policy, the friendly relationship between the wine industry and the agricultural division of the EU Commission is alarming.

Not only does it make the Commission seem internally split, with health representatives of the Commission meeting with the public health community, while agricultural representatives meet with the alcohol industry. It also shows the influence Big Alcohol poses on the political agenda when agricultural representatives of the Commission meet with Big alcohol on purely public health related bills.

The goal of the industry is clear – undermine and fight any proposal that might interfere with their profit maximization agenda. To achieve this they use any contacts they have and any means possible.

Need for protection against alcohol industry interference

This shows the strong need for a holistic approach in curbing alcohol industry interference: It is not enough that just direct public health officials have a critical approach. It is necessary that it is prevalent among all different sectors, from health to financial to agricultural divisions of the European Commission.

The current situation is in many ways the perfect example of why a global binding treaty for alcohol policy is necessary, just like the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control that limits interactions between governments and Big Tobacco and ways of tobacco industry interference (Article 5.3).

For instance, a brand new Australian pilot study revealed the volume of lobbying and political donations, of health harmful industries, including Big Tobacco and Big Alcohol. The researchers found that between July 2014 and December 2020, NSW ministers had 20,607 meetings, of which 634 meetings were with harmful industries. And between 1998 and 2020, a total of $576,519,472 disclosed donations were made to political parties and other entities, of which $35,823,937 were from harmful industries.
The alcohol industry is leading in both categories, while the tobacco industry has almost no lobby meetings and donations at all.

Political donations

  1. Alcohol ($14,329,566),
  2. Gambling ($10,966,200),
  3. Ultra-processed foods ($6,144,679), and
  4. Tobacco ($4,383,492).

Lobbying meetins

  1. Gambling (n = 331 meetings),
  2. Alcohol (n = 158),
  3. Ultra-processed foods (n = 142), and
  4. Tobacco (n = 3).

Despite lobby onslaught: Green Light for Alcohol Warning Labelling in Ireland

Earlier this week, Ireland has finally received the green light from the European Commission to go ahead with its initiative to place health warning labels on all alcohol products. The way is now clear for the Irish Minister for Health, Stephen Donnelly, to sign these provisions into law. 

Evidence-based, public health focused alcohol policy solutions that have been democratically agreed in an EU country should not hang in the balance and be subject to aggressive interference and attempts to derail by the alcohol industry.”

Emil Juslin and Lisa Österman

The public, community groups, and civil society organizations, including IOGT-NTO are in support and welcome this latest development. But opposition and lobbying against public health by the alcohol industry continues, as Movendi International reported.

Evidence-based, public health focused alcohol policy solutions that have been democratically agreed in an EU country, such as in the Ireland case, should not hang in the balance and be subject to aggressive interference and attempts to derail by the alcohol industry.

As we show in the report “Uncorking Big Alcohol in the EU“, the Irish alcohol labelling proposal has been discussed on the EU level at three different occasions (in 2016, 2018 and 2022). Each time it has been met by an extensive lobbying campaign from the alcohol industry to undermine the proposal with the goal of making the European Commission oppose the proposal in its entirety. This time Big Alcohol failed to derail a process to better protect people from alcohol harm, but they delayed it and in other cases they succeeded to block or undermine proven alcohol policy solutions.

Public health initiatives should be protected from alcohol industry interference and the European Commission, as well as national governments, should not open their doors to the alcohol lobby, following the example of how they deal with Big Tobacco.

About Our Guest Experts

Emil Juslin

Emil is European Policy Officer at IOGT-NTO and leads the Brussels office.

You can follow Emil’s work on Twitter: @EmilJuslin

Lisa Österman

Lisa is European Liaison Officer at IOGT-NTO and works at the Brussels office.

You can follow the work of IOGT-NTO’s Brussels office on Twitter: @Brysselkontoret