Alcohol labellers face legal “domino effect”

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, https://doi.org/10.1093/alcalc/agx124

Alcohol cancer labelling advocates unfazed by Yukon threats

Legal threats of the kind which abruptly halted the first trial of cancer warning labels in Canada’s Yukon territory before Christmas are not altering plans elsewhere.

Measures proposed last month in Australia call for “readable, impactful” warning labels. And Gerald Nash, an Irish senator, introduced an amendment to a recent alcohol bill to include cancer warnings.

“Given the strength and level of support expressed in the Senate, I expect that the bill will receive the same level of support when it moves to the Dàil [Ireland’s Lower House],” Nash told Alcohol Companion.

Donal Buggy of the Irish Cancer Society says he is confident, “The public health imperative for inclusion of cancer-specific labelling warnings will prevail over the narrow sectoral interests of the alcohol industry.”

Legal threats are “not an issue” in Australia, says Michael Thorn, head of Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education: “Australia took it up to the tobacco industry on plain packaging and won.”

The initial focus of Thorn’s efforts will be to  secure mandated warning labels on the dangers of drinking while pregnant, paving the way for others. This might happen in the next 18 months, he says.

In Ireland, meanwhile, one seasoned observer suggests public support for the alcohol bill would mean any attempt by the alcohol industry to stand in its way would be a “PR disaster”.

The next phase of alcohol industry resistance there seems more likely to be quibbling about the format and wording of warning labels than whether they appear.

It is currently unclear whether the Yukon trial will restart. 

Legal warnings halt first cancer label scheme

Legal warnings from alcohol brand-owners have halted the world’s first trial of labels warning that consuming alcohol increases the risk of cancer, raising question marks over similar plans elsewhere.

Unnamed alcohol brand owners have warned the state-owned alcohol retailer applying the labels in Canada’s Yukon territory that it may be infringing trademarks and guilty of defamation, say local media reports.

The Yukon trial had been running from one shop for little more than one of the eight months intended. No new labels have been applied to bottles and cans, but those already applied have be left in place. The trial began late last month.

The enforced hiatus may have implications elsewhere: Ireland decided this month to introduce labels warning of the risk, while Australia’s newly-released draft alcohol strategy mentions alcohol’s contribution to cancer cases and suggests “readable, impactful” warning labels.

Campaigners have also raised concerns that the labels have replaced rather than supplemented labels warning of the risk of drinking alcohol in pregnancy. Labels saying “Warning, drinking alcohol during pregnancy can cause birth defects” had been applied since 1991.

The trial is part of the second phase of the Northern Territories Alcohol Study led by researchers from Public Health Ontario and the Canadian Institute for Substance Use Research at the University of Victoria. Its research suggests enhanced labelling could have benefits.

Yukon has the highest alcohol sales per head in in Canada. ■