The World Health Organisation (WHO) has changed the way it talks about alcohol, according to one expert ― and she urges the wine industry to pay attention.
“We have been working on these threats for almost 15 years, and we are used to seeing news about alcohol beverages and the WHO in the press,” says Ana Isabel Alves, Executive Director of the Portuguese Association for Wine and Spirits. “But the narratives have changed.”
It is about making alcoholic beverages less socially acceptable, like with tobacco.
Previously, she said, health warnings around alcohol focused on three things: the issue of drinking and driving, the wellbeing of minors, and the harms done to pregnant women. But in the past year, the discussion has changed. “We call this the ‘de-normalisation project’,” she says. “This new narrative is about making alcoholic beverages less socially acceptable, like with tobacco.”
What the WHO is proposing
As Alves points out, tobacco is not illegal in most countries. But the legality is beside the point, because it’s almost impossible to smoke anywhere: smoking is banned in restaurants, public places, bars and even many outdoor spaces. Not only is it more difficult to find a place to light up, smoking is also no longer socially acceptable, she says.
These tactics, driven by the WHO, have been stunningly successful, representing one of the great health victories of the past 30 years. But, says Alves, this playbook is now being used against alcohol, including wine.
“What we see now is that they don’t want to ban alcohol, but they are creating the context so that people don’t want to drink."
“What we see now is that they don’t want to ban alcohol, but they are creating the context so that people don’t want to drink,” she says.
In 2022, the WHO proposed co-ordinated European action in six areas: alcohol pricing; alcohol availability; alcohol marketing; health information, with a specific focus on alcohol labelling; health services’ response; and community action.
The document, “Turning down the alcohol flow” makes it explicit that alcohol should be treated like tobacco: “Just as with tobacco, a global and comprehensive approach is required to remove alcohol marketing, as far as possible, from all contexts.”
Among the recommendations are a ban on all advertising, and new restrictions on where alcohol can be sold and served, such as at sporting or cultural events where minors may be present.
The Lancet announcement
In July 2022, The Lancet, the world’s pre-eminent medical journal, quoted an analysis from the Global Burden of Disease, which estimated that 1.34 billion people consumed harmful amounts of alcohol in 2020. The statement also suggested, however, that small amounts of alcohol might be beneficial in some specific circumstances.
While alcohol has no benefits but plenty of risks for young people, the statement added: “... some older adults may benefit from drinking a small amount of alcohol”.
“For adults over age 40, health risks from alcohol consumption vary by age and region. Consuming a small amount of alcohol for people in this age group can provide some health benefits, such as reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease, stroke, and diabetes.”
A January 2023 statement from The Lancet makes the point, however, that it’s difficult to tease out what these benefits might be, and for whom.
“Some, but not all, studies have suggested that light alcohol consumption could have a small protective effect."
“Some, but not all, studies have suggested that light alcohol consumption could have a small protective effect, as measured by the risk of some cardiovascular diseases or type 2 diabetes,” said the authors, who are staff members of WHO.
“Some studies show the existence of such effects on certain types of cardiovascular diseases in middle-aged and older people. However, several reviews also found that the protective effects of moderate consumption disappear with heavy episodic drinking, which increases the risk of any cardiovascular diseases.”
The answer to that would appear to be simple: drink moderately at all times and avoid heavy drinking at all costs.
But the statement went on: “No studies have shown that the potential existence of a protective effect for cardiovascular diseases or type 2 diabetes also reduces the risk of cancer for an individual consumer.”
In other words, although alcohol in moderation might be good for some people with some conditions, drinking might still put them at risk for one of the seven alcohol-related cancers.
The message is now that all alcohol is bad, at all times.
Wine is not considered special
“We cannot talk about a so-called safe level of alcohol use. It doesn’t matter how much you drink – the risk to the drinker’s health starts from the first drop of any alcoholic beverage,” said Dr Carina Ferreira-Borges in a statement. She is the acting Unit Lead for Noncommunicable Disease Management and Regional Advisor for Alcohol and Illicit Drugs in the WHO Regional Office for Europe.
The Comité Européen des Enterprises Vins (CEEV) has argued that health risks have to be understood within cultural and social contexts and that lifestyle factors must be taken into consideration.
“Concerning wine, while scientific evidence shows that harmful use of alcohol may be associated with an increased risk of developing cancer,” it said in a statement, “it shows that no increased risk is associated with wine consumption in moderation, with a meal, as part of healthy lfiestyles and dietary patterns and, in particular, with the Mediterranean diet.”
Health warnings in Ireland
To see how all this might play out, look to Ireland (Meininger's reported). In May 2023, the Irish government announced that, from 2026, all alcohol will carry labels showing the calorie content and grams of alcohol labels ― as well as prominent warnings about the links between alcohol, liver disease and cancer.
“I look forward to other countries following our example,” said Irish Health Minister Stephen Donnelly, pointing out that Ireland is the first country in the world to introduce health labelling of alcohol products.
It was a decision applauded by WHO, which said it will support other countries in implementing such measures.
The CEEV also launched a formal complaint to the European Commission on the basis that Ireland’s initiative is against EU law and are “a disproportionate and unjustified barrier to trade”.
Alves believes these efforts may not be enough. “It’s very hard to work against this,” she said. “It’s not just happening at the European level, but at the world level.”
Young people in wine-consuming countries are already drinking far less than previous generations, in large part because of health concerns.
The case for wine
Alves says that Wine in Moderation, an EU body launched in 2008 by the wine sector to encourage moderate consumption, is working on a communication strategy. One potential strategy is to point out how valuable wine is to the EU, both culturally and financially.
According to the EU wine market observatory, EU exports were worth €17.2 billion in the 2021/2022 marketing year.
However, this may be fighting a rear-guard action. Young people in wine-consuming countries are already drinking far less than previous generations, in large part because of health concerns. The WHO’s new efforts to bring down alcohol consumption are likely to turbo-charge this trend even further.
“We want people to drink in moderation,” said Alves. “We don’t want people to be drunk. We are not against health or moderation warnings. But wine is a very important sector in Europe.”
But just because it’s important today, doesn’t mean it will be considered important tomorrow.