“Strengthening Europe in the fight against cancer”
Eleven years have passed since alcohol, along with tobacco and processed foods, was first described by scientists as an "unhealthy commodity", with ethanol identified as a risk factor for a variety of diseases such as cardiovascular conditions.
The political discussion reached a peak in February 2022, when the EU Parliament's vote on “Strengthening Europe in the fight against cancer” almost led to stronger regulations of the entire alcohol sector. It was only at the last minute that the text of the Special Committee on Beating Cancer (BECA) was tempered. Drastic measures like the introduction of compulsory health warnings, which were initially part of the resolution paper, were changed to "information on moderate and responsible consumption".
The wine industry had a reprieve. But it may be temporary.
Ireland is a warning
Anyone in the alcohol industry who thinks they might be spared from such far-reaching measures should consider the case of Ireland’s warning labels, introduced in May 2023. The introduction of the label, which declares a clear link between alcohol consumption and cancer, makes it clear that political efforts to reduce alcohol consumption will continue to intensify within the European Union.
This leads to many questions:
- Where is the current political pressure coming from?
- Who are the key players within the debate?
- What measures will the wine industry face in the future besides these types of warning labels?
- Can these developments be resisted?
All roads lead to the WHO
As recently as 1983, the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared that the consumption of alcoholic beverages was a global health problem. At the time, the consumption of wine was still considered to have many health benefits, a view which is no longer held by either science or politics. Even if some of the ingredients in wine are considered to have a health-promoting effect per se, the WHO considers they are outweighed by the negative effects of ethanol. Any regulatory measures will thus fall on all alcoholic beverages, whether beer, spirits or wine.
According to the WHO, the consumption of alcoholic products led to a total of 5.5% of all deaths in the European Union in 2016. The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) has also repeatedly emphasised the grave social damage and economic costs associated with the consumption of alcohol, from a decrease in life expectancy to increased health care costs, and also reduced productivity. When it comes to the introduction of regulatory measures to combat harmful consumption, the OECD does not confer any special status on wine. Indeed, it considers state regulations to be an "excellent investment".
How should the wine industry react?
In its 2010 "Global Strategy to Reduce the Harmful Use of Alcohol", the WHO articulated alcohol policy measures for the first time.
These were refined at the 75th World Health Assembly in May 2022. The "Global Action Plan 2022-2030" now identifies three areas of action:
Increase excise taxes on alcoholic beverages;
Enact and enforce bans or comprehensive restrictions on exposure to alcohol advertising across the media; and
Enact and enforce restrictions on the physical availability of retailed alcohol by reducing the hours of sale.
Taxes or minimum prices?
How this could be put into practice can be seen in the UK, where taxes on still wines over 12.5% abv were increased by 20% from 1 August 2023. Minimum prices for alcoholic beverages also apply, as they do in Scotland, Wales and Ireland.
When it comes to advertising, the industry could be confronted with standardised packaging in the future—meaning wine could be sold in uniform, plain packaging, covered with the type of graphic health warnings seen on cigarette packages. In France, the introduction of a modified Nutri-Score was proposed in 2022. This would mean alcohol would be labelled with a black F. To put this in context, Coca-Cola currently bears the label "E".
Europe focuses on beating cancer
Europe’s alcohol policy widely follows the recommendations of the WHO. As per the "Strengthening Europe in the fight against cancer" report of February 2022, the boundaries between "moderate" and "harmful" consumption are collapsing. Studies that say there is no such thing as harmless alcohol consumption when it comes to cancer risk are gaining traction in the policy process. This is a development that should be of grave concern to the wine industry.
In the resolution of the European Parliament, drastic measures such as the introduction of compulsory health warnings, which were initially part of the resolution paper, were eventually changed to "information on moderate and responsible alcohol consumption". Likewise, it now speaks of harmful consumption instead of consumption as a risk factor.
When it comes to the EU Commission's goal of reducing alcohol consumption in the EU by 10% by 2025, it’s clear that there’s no doubt where the political efforts are heading: all alcoholic beverages, including wine, are considered a central risk factor for cancer and are therefore right at the heart of European health policy. Looking at the original demands of the BECA Special Committee, it is difficult to imagine a medium- or long-term deviation from the course already indicated.
Can no- and low-alcohol save the wine industry?
Consumption of alcohol in many EU countries has been declining for a long time. Not surprisingly, the wine industry is looking for new ways to attract consumers, and the "No & Low" category has been attracting more attention. As the market grows and the number of different no- and low-alcohol drinks increase—whether they be de-alcoholised wines or tea- and juice-based drinks — the category is also attracting the attention of health policy makers. A recent WHO report on No & Low critically points to possible "alibi marketing" in which alcohol companies use existing their non-alcohol brands as a stealth marketing tactic for their alcohol brands. This means that wine companies may have to do more than simply produce no-alcohol versions of their brands.
Instead, the wine industry needs to confront the arguments of the anti-alcohol lobby in order to promote the responsible use of alcohol. This is not just to ward off political action. It’s also a way of grappling with the fact that fewer and fewer young people consume alcoholic beverages. In Germany, a study conducted by YouGov caused a stir which found that just under half of young adults (18 to 24 years of age) do not consume any alcohol at all. The size of the wine industry's potential target group is therefore shrinking and a shift in consumption towards non-alcoholic alternatives likely to continue as the next Dry January is already in sight.