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Booze in Ireland will soon carry cancer warning labels

Tim Nelson
Updated: October 08, 2018

Ireland is known for its drinking culture. If Instagram is any indication, it’s seemingly impossible to visit the country without stopping at the Guinness storehouse in Dublin or some famous distillery. But if a new bill passed by Ireland’s lower parliamentary house goes into law, locals and tourists alike will have no choice but to take stock of the country’s drinking heritage.

Last week, the Public Health (Alcohol) Bill passed the Dáil, signaling a broad commitment to treating alcohol abuse like a public health issue in a country where binge drinking can be common. Among its edicts are a minimum sales price per unit of alcohol, the banning of alcohol adverts in publicly-owned parks and at sporting events, and dire warning labels both on bottles and at the point of sale. For all intents and purposes, Ireland will now regulate the sale of alcohol similarly to how much of the world treats cigarettes.

"We know that we have a relationship with alcohol in this country that is not good, that damages our health, harms our communities, and harms many families," Minister for Health Simon Harris said in a speech before parliament. "The measures in this bill will make a real difference to change the culture of drinking in Ireland."

Passing what amounts to the most sweeping set of nationwide alcohol regulations in the western world hasn’t been an easy task. The bill was first introduced all the way back in 2015, and protracted debate over the implications of banning alcohol advertising at sporting events and near schools has taken place in the more than 1,000 days since. In a country where drinking and tourism are all but intertwined, some feared that breweries and distilleries would be banned from using directional signage to guide visitors. Harris, however, made clear that these do not meet the bill’s definition of advertising.

Naturally, Ireland’s sizable alcohol industry isn’t on board. “No other country in the world requires mandatory cancer warning labels,” Alcohol Beverages Federation of Ireland director Patricia Callan told the New York Times. “Imposing such a label will cause substantial reputational damage to our quality products by applying a stigma to products made in Ireland.”

While alcohol is a boon for Ireland’s economy, its human impact isn’t as universally positive. A 2014 WHO survey showing that 39 percent of Irishmen and women over the age of 15 engaged in binge drinking behavior. That’s not to mention the 500 people who die of alcohol-related cancers in Ireland every year, a fact that inspired the carcinogenic labelling.

Of course, the bill still needs to be passed by the Seanad Éireann (Ireland’s senate) and signed into law by the president before it can take affect. Will this be a defining moment in a worldwide reexamination of our drinking habits? Who knows. But if the response to Ireland’s then-unprecedented 2004 ban on smoking in the workplace is any indication, expect public health organizations around the globe to take notice.  

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