Risk of Internal Market distortions: Ireland’s TRIS Notification on planned health warning labels
On 22 June 2022, the Irish government notified the European Commission about its proposal on mandatory Health Warning Labels (HWLs) on alcoholic beverage products. The planned Regulation would oblige all alcoholic beverages sold on the Irish market to carry on the label a number of different warning symbols and sentences including a link to the website www.askaboutalcohol.ie
The nature and timing of the planned measures are highly unusual given that the EU has already committed to present a harmonized proposal on the matter in 2023. Common practice has it that EU Member States are expected to halt the adoption of national measures on matters on which the Commission has already announced its intention to legislate with a harmonized approach.
In light of this, the measure would represent a significant, unjustified and disproportionate distortion to the Internal Market and the free movement of goods.
In addition, the Irish proposal as currently drafted would seem to inadequately reflect the complex scientific evidence-base & lacks a careful evaluation in what shape or form accurate health warning/awareness labels may be considered meaningful and proportionate interventions in light of the weak/mixed evidence regarding real-life changes in consumer behaviour, or even simply awareness.
Health warning labels are strong interventions in the freedom of marketing of the producers, but have been shown to have a very small effect on consumers, thus they are commonly ranked among the weakest interventions. Evidence shows that repeated exposure to HWLs may increase awareness of their existence, but not necessarily of their messaging, and also increases the likelihood that they will be ignored.
In the EU, the vast majority of consumers of alcoholic beverages are moderate consumers. The Irish government has not given scientific evidence whether its proposed warnings may prompt reduced consumption by health-conscious moderate drinkers. Apparently, it seems to have neither considered existing evidence that has shown that those most at-risk of harm may be least sensitive to warning labels. The proposed health warnings fail to reflect the complexities that arise in considering the health risks for individual consumers, which vary significantly on the amount of alcohol consumed and the pattern of consumption. Thus, the warnings may, in effect, not accurately inform consumers.
In light of the above, a proper, in-depth discussion and evaluation of the complex matter of health warning labels should be part of any future harmonized EU approach on the subject. In the meantime, we call on the European Commission to express a negative opinion on the Irish proposals given the unusual timing & nature of the proposals and the inherent risks it would pose at this point in time to the seamless functioning of the Internal Market.