Alcohol labellers face legal “domino effect”

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Jurisdictions trying to introduce health warning labels on alcoholic drinks face a daunting battery of legal challenges intended to discourage them and others, say experts.

Hardly any country or province currently provides labels warning people that drinking alcohol increases the risk of a range of mental, physical and social problems, including cancer, heart disease, birth defects, anxiety and depression.

Jurisdictions which try to change this face the threat of being hit by “legal big guns”, according to analysis published last week.* The most recent case was in the sparsely-populated Yukon territory in Canada which halted a trial in December after receiving worrisome legal warnings.

“The raising of legal doubts, threats of litigation and the actual commencement of litigation have the potential to sway all but the most resolute and well-resourced governments from prioritising public health over industry interests,” the paper says.

The law allows the alcohol industry to make legal challenges at the national, supranational or international courts, as well as tribunals. Australia’s defence of plain tobacco packaging, the paper says, drawing a comparison, has been costly and time-consuming, although it seems set to be successful.

Thailand was the first to hear the drumbeat of possible litigation from the alcohol industry after proposing graphic warning labels in 2010. It planned to introduce labels warning that drinking alcohol causes liver cirrhosis and can undermine sexual performance.

But Thailand’s labels never appeared after they were discussed in the World Trade Organisation’s Technical Barriers to Trade Committee, a diplomatic forum. Concerns raised by the EU, US, Australia and New Zealand may have been taken as the signs of impending legal action.

Jurisdictions can have some confidence courts will take their side when their labels are designed to reflect “good scientific evidence”, the paper explains, but opponents can play on nagging doubts by introducing the prospect of long and expensive litigation.

The alcohol industry may, the paper argues, be looking for a “domino effect” in which governments lose their resolve to introduce alcohol labels. Dr Margaret Chan, a former director-general of the World Health Organisation, described the tobacco industry using this strategy in 2015.

The alcohol industry will be “extremely pleased” to halt the Yukon trial (pictured), says Professor Robin Room of Melbourne University, one of the authors of the paper. It also saw the disappearance of a label in place for 27 years warning that drinking while pregnant can cause birth defects.

“We are still a little hopeful that our study may resume in some capacity,” Erin Hobin, a researcher on the trial, told Alcohol Companion. Supporters of plans for health labels in Australia and Ireland, meanwhile, say they are undaunted by Yukon’s legal difficulties.

Continuing to use trade and investment treaties to launch legal action, the paper says, would be “substantially against the public interest and public health”. With overwhelming public support for health labels, the dominos could yet fall the other way.

*Paula O’Brien, Deborah Gleeson, Robin Room, Claire Wilkinson; Commentary on ‘Communicating Messages About Drinking’: Using the ‘Big Legal Guns’ to Block Alcohol Health Warning Labels, Alcohol and Alcoholism,

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