Time for wine to stand up and be counted

on 04 April, 2014

In 2007, a voluntary agreement was made between the government and the drinks industry to ensure that 80% of all alcohol packaging in the UK would carry a warning label by December 2013. Consisting of information about units, consumption guidelines and risks to health, it’s part of a wider effort to increase awareness about responsible drinking.

If you go and look at 10 random bottles of spirits, beer or cider, I reckon there’s a good chance that eight of them will display this label. Try it with 10 bottles of wine, though, and i bet they won’t. In fact, why not do it now and tweet me the results.

The wine trade has an ingrained misconception that it is somehow different from other alcohol – that it has a cultural and sensorial superiority that exempts it from common concerns such as warning labels.

But to the powers that be, booze is booze. Wine deserves no greater distinction than cigars do from cigarettes.

Wine is a hugely differentiated and fragmented product, of course, with countless producers, importers and origins. In that way, it is logistically harder to ensure that wine complies with voluntary UK labelling agreements than it is for beer, cider and spirits.

But it would be a huge mistake to ignore compliance. Alcohol is the “third leading risk factor for poor health globally” and Europe “has the unenviable position of being the region of the world with the highest levels of alcohol consumption and alcohol-related harm”, according to the World Health Organisation.

The powerful NGO Eurocare is lobbying for European alcohol consumption to drop by a quarter before 2020. Our own government’s policy may not be so severe, but it is unequivocal that alcohol is a problem that needs solving. it does at least acknowledge that “alcohol consumption can have a positive effect on adults’ wellbeing” – something signally absent from eurocare’s rhetoric, and referenced only very obliquely by WHO.

But nowhere is wine afforded any kind of distinction from other alcohol, and it is absolutely no less liable to anti-alcohol measures.

Mandatory health warnings were introduced on tobacco packaging in 1971. Today, cigarette boxes are wreathed in pictorial warnings, increasingly hidden from view and are even moving towards complete de-branding. is it unthinkable that the same thing could happen to wine within 40 years?

The tobacco companies didn’t think so either. And you can be sure they tried to derail this legislative onslaught when it first began by emphasising the social benefits of their product.

Failing to engage with the current momentum about alcohol would be fatal, and wine must play an equal part. Voluntary agreements are supposed to demonstrate that we, the industry, can regulate ourselves. They must be taken seriously. If they are deemed unsuccessful, the anti-alcohol movement will roar that punitive legislation is the only answer. We ignore them at our peril.

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