Incredulity is etched across Sandro Boscaini’s face. “Sometimes I wake in the night with shock,” the Italian winemaker tells us. “Thinking… wow, why? Why can it happen?”
“It” is Ireland’s controversial plan to introduce health warning labels on alcohol products.
When enacted, the legislation will mean that bottles on Irish shelves – including Sandro’s – will bear stark warnings of liver disease and fatal cancers.
Printed in red capital letters in Times New Roman font, the labels have set Ireland against Europe’s wine-producing nations and led to a fully-fledged diplomatic spat.
It’s deceptively quiet at Masi Agricola’s headquarters in the Valpolicella wine region of northern Italy.
The vines are bare at this time of the year, and much of the work preparing for growth and harvesting goes unseen. But Masi is a major operation.
Listed on the Borsa Italiana, the Milan stock exchange, it produces around 12 million bottles a year, exported to 140 countries, including Ireland.
Sandro is Masi’s president and the sixth generation of the Boscaini family to lead the 250-year-old business.
Surrounded by oak barrels in one of his cellars, the man known as “Mr Amarone” is visibly appalled at the idea that his beloved wines represent a health risk.
“The Mediterranean diet never says don’t use alcohol,” he points out.
“It says don’t abuse alcohol. We know we have the longevity, after the Japanese, the maximum longevity. Why’s that? Because of the cancer that comes from the alcohol? Come on.”
He urges Ireland “to stop, because it is a stupidity that is an insult to what our ancestors did centuries ago”.
But the Irish government isn’t listening.
A deadline for the European Commission to object to the plan expired without action despite objections from at least nine member states, including Italy, Spain and France.
Ireland’s government says the new regulations, which flow from the Public Health (Alcohol) Act 2018, will be key to reducing alcohol abuse in Ireland and lightening the load it places on the public health system.
‘An attack on the Mediterranean diet’
The Italian government disagrees, and in the strongest terms.
The country’s foreign minister, Antonio Tajani, described the labelling as “absurd” and nothing less than an “attack on the Mediterranean diet, which is a fundamental part of our economy”.
Mr Tajani told reporters he had raised his objections with his Irish counterpart, Micheal Martin, in Brussels, and explained to him how “dangerous” the message coming from Dublin was. Mr Martin’s response was not recorded.
Spanish agriculture minister Luis Planas has urged EU countries to launch a joint complaint to the World Trade Organisation (WTO).
Ireland’s draft legislation is currently being examined to see if it breaches European single market rules.
That means a “standstill period” is in effect, so that the Irish health minister Stephen Donnelly can’t sign the regulations until May at the earliest.
Legal action has been threatened by the EU wine producers’ organisation CEEV.
Its head, Ingacio Sanchez Recarte, said that “now it is time for international partners at WTO level to raise again their concerns with the Irish proposal. Will Ireland listen to them or will it remain deaf as it was to EU partners’ comments?
“In the absence of action by the European Commission, little can be done. I guess only the European Court of Justice would be able to defend the EU at this stage.”
Coldiretti, Italy’s biggest farmers’ association, described the “terrifying” warnings as a “direct attack” against the country.
“We consider this a dangerous precedent at European level,” said Coldiretti’s Paolo di Stefano, “and we think these terrifying warning labels are not the right way to inform properly the consumer.”
“It’s a possible breach of the internal market rules, because of course it will distort trade, and in a way if this example will be followed by other member states, it will also be a huge economic impact for Italian wine producers,” he said.
‘The science is very clear’
But the Irish plan has won the full backing of public health advocates across Europe.
“The science is very clear, alcohol causes cancer,” says Florence Berteletti, an Italian who is secretary general of the European Alcohol Policy Alliance.
“Two people are killed every minute by alcohol in our region [Europe].”
She says Ireland – which became the first country in the world to bring in a general workplace smoking ban in 2004 – is again leading the way on public health.
“The story is again about Ireland being the heroes for the public health community. Ireland is the first one but there will be other countries who will follow suit,” she says.
“We will win this battle, I am confident. The government of Ireland was a hero 20 years ago when they introduced smoke-free, and heroes again because they’re the first to introduce this measure which will have global significance.”
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Some of her compatriots in Ireland disagree.
Luca De Marzio is the owner of the popular Rosa Madre restaurant in Dublin. Here, it’s hard to avoid wine bottles, which line the walls above the diners’ heads. His finer vintages are stored in two fingerprint-protected cellars.
“I couldn’t believe it to be honest”, Luca says of the labelling plan.
“I was really shocked about it. As you can see bottles are everywhere in here, and it’s a weird to think there’d be signs for cancer in somewhere where you go for fun.”
‘We don’t deserve to be treated like tobacco’
He feels such warnings will be ineffectual in tackling alcohol abuse.
“I gave up smoking last year, but it wasn’t for the cancer sign on the label of the packet of cigarettes,” says the restauranteur.
“Whoever is alcoholic doesn’t drink bottles of wine by the glass in a restaurant, so I think there are other ways to deal with the problem other than to put on the wine a label saying it might cause cancer. Investing in education, or to give people a different hobby – rather than to penalise the whole industry.”
Luca, originally from Rome, points out it’s not just his home country that plans to fight Ireland’s new regulations.
“Obviously Italians, they go always passionate about it, but I’m sure they won’t be the only ones complaining.
“I’m sure all Europe, Spain, France, eventually they’re not happy. I just spoke with a few wine importers and they told me they’re in the same boat on this.
“They don’t deserve to be in the same category as tobacco.”
But the World Health Organisation classifies alcohol as a carcinogen and has said that there is “no safe amount” of alcohol consumption.
The Irish government wants to be seen to lead on the issue and is determined to forge ahead with its warning labels on alcohol products.
But it won’t be without a struggle.
The great wine-producing nations of Europe, among others, will continue to mull their diplomatic and legal options to put a halt to Ireland’s “dangerous” plan.