Close Shave for European Wine Industry


To the relief of winemakers across Europe, the EU has stepped back from classifying wine as causing cancer.

The defeated proposal would have seen wine, beer and spirits treated as carcinogenic.

© Getty Images
| The defeated proposal would have seen wine, beer and spirits treated as carcinogenic.

After intense lobbying, the European wine industry dodged a major bullet this week, as the European Parliament softened several sentences in a resolution that might have launched the beginning of Prohibition.

In the short term, European wines will not have to carry a warning label saying they cause cancer. But the more important long-term change is so small that non-native speakers may not fully grasp the implications of the English version. But they are enormous.

A prior draft of a report from the Parliament’s Special Committee on Beating Cancer (BECA) said that the World Health Organization “recognizes that there is no safe level of alcohol consumption”. The amended draft that the Parliament approved says that the WHO “recognizes that the safest level of alcohol consumption is none”.

This minor change in wording saves the day for wine lovers. BECA, basing its report on a now-disputed study published in the Lancet in 2018, pushed for alcohol to be regulated just like tobacco. Imagine a wine world with punitively high taxes, limited numbers of shops allowed to carry the product, no direct shipping, and every other anti-tobacco measure. That scenario would have been the responsibility of the European Parliament to enact if it had ruled that alcohol and tobacco are equally dangerous.

Brexit may have helped save the day. The UK has only a small wine industry (though a very large whisky industry) and has seen a number of governmental moves in the last few years intended to reduce consumption of alcohol. But there are no longer any British members of the European Parliament.

“Harmful” addition

The Parliament made several other minor but important edits as well. The major philosophical change is the addition of the word “harmful” in several key places, like this: “Harmful alcohol consumption is a risk factor for many different cancers.” Adding “harmful” implies that there can be alcohol consumption that is “not harmful”, and this is an extraordinarily important distinction.

The original BECA report says “tobacco and alcohol consumption, poor nutrition, a high body-mass index, a sedentary lifestyle and environmental pollution are risk factors common to other chronic diseases”. The Parliament added the word “harmful” before alcohol consumption, greatly changing the meaning.

As for warning labels, the original report called for “health warning labels”; that was edited to say that labels should include “moderate and responsible drinking information”, which may mean something like the Australian labeling system; i.e.: “Contains 8.5 standard drinks.”

Also removed from the resolution was a ban on alcohol companies sponsoring sports events, which will bring a sigh of relief to sports leagues around the continent. This was changed to say that alcohol companies should not sponsor events aimed at minors.

“These amendments are fundamental, as they clearly show that the European Parliament is aware that wine isn’t just a beverage, but an integral part of European culture, worthy of protection,” Pauline Vicard, executive director of London-based wine research firm Areni Global, told Wine-Searcher.

“This being said, the mere fact that there was an original BECA report, and all the conversations that followed, underlined the fact that we need to talk more about alcohol and health in our industry, and stop thinking that only alcoholics or serious abusers face health risk when it comes to wine. We need to start teaching the trade accordingly, to act responsibly, and show that we are worthy of this cultural exception. I am appalled at the fact that alcohol companies can still sponsor sport events, for example. Acting responsibly would include smaller serving sizes being available. In many parts of Europe – and especially the UK, the default serve is often 250ml, which is a lot. Drinking in moderation shouldn’t be the responsibility of the consumers alone; we have to actively encourage it.”

The resolution passed 381-276. The resolution is non-binding, but the European Commission is scheduled to review its rules on alcohol labeling and taxation in 2023, and these few small changes in the report should be very influential.

Dolors Montserrat, a former Spanish health minister and now a member of the European Parliament, told The Daily Telegraph that the representatives had stopped “the attempt to criminalize Cava, wine and beer”.

“We reject the abusive consumption of alcohol, which is harmful to health, and we defend the moderate consumption of wine and our well-known Mediterranean diet,” Montserrat said.

So celebrate with a drink! Just make it a small one.

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