Drinking as the New Smoking

By William J. Furney

French, Italian and Spanish wine producers are aghast that tiny country Ireland is about to slap health-warning labels on bottles of wine, advising that the grape-drink is carcinogenic and to think twice before imbibing. 

This would be the same Ireland, whose people are world-famous for boozing and general merry-making — having the “craic” — although the humble vino is seen less of a manly drink in the Emerald Isle and certainly no man worth his salt would be seen dead having a glass of claret down the local pub (same sorry story in England, where pints of beer also rule). 

Ireland has already relegated alcoholic drinks to the class of undesirable products, shielding them in special sections of supermarkets, much like cigarettes, which are banned from being displayed and placed in closed cabinets at checkouts.

Drink Alert: A proposed Irish warning label that may be placed on alcoholic drinks. 

Critics say the republic’s wine-warning-label move — which would also apply to beer and other alcohol products and is currently under inspection by the European Union, to see if it contravenes its rules — is an attack on the healthy Mediterranean diet, rich in fresh vegetables, olive oil and red wine. But others say the diet is healthy despite the addition of harmful alcohol. 

Sandro Boscaini, head of leading Italian wine producer Masi Agricola, can’t quite believe Ireland’s claim that wine is unhealthy. 

“The Mediterranean diet never says don’t use alcohol,” he told Sky News. 

“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 said the Irish government should call a halt to its wine-labelling plan — which could come in as early as May — “because it is a stupidity that is an insult to what our ancestors did centuries ago”.

The republic led the way with a workplace smoking ban in 2004, the first country in the world to do so, and now is trailblazing once again to help protect people’s health and lives. But it’s not the only country to launch a battle against booze. 

Canada recently revised its guidance on alcohol consumption, saying it’s best to have little or none and that two drinks a week presents a health risk. That prompted one commentator on TalkTV to jest that the North American nation is “so boring you need booze to survive”. (Some in Canada are now also advising against drinking too much coffee.)

The World Health Organisation classes alcohol as a carcinogen and says it leads to 3 million deaths around the world every year, so should we all give it up? Or will we be forced to by governments and health bodies who think they know better?

Certainly wine, at least, is an indelible part of continental European culture. On a recent trip to Milan, Italy, people everywhere were enjoying wine and other alcoholic drinks, quietly sipping as they relaxed at street-side bars, cafes, during intermissions at La Scala and over dinner at pasta and pizza restaurants, refined scenes replicated in France, Spain and elsewhere around the continent. It’s a far cry from the furious necking of endless pints of beer in the pubs of Ireland and England that gives rise to binge drinking culture, with people falling out of boozers late and night and, legless, into the gutter. 

European wineries are not taking Ireland’s booze alert sitting down, however. Spain is calling for other wine producers in the region to join it in appealing to the World Trade Organisation. It’s not that they’re particularly worried about losing trade in a country of just 5 million people, but that other countries might then follow suit, including much larger, neighbouring Britain — like what happened with Ireland’s smoking ban.

That could spell catastrophe for vineyards around Europe already struggling with a glut of oversupply and trends against drinking among younger people — TikTok is full of pious folk posting about giving up booze and how much better they feel because of it. 

Perhaps we should not just do Dry January but Dry All Year. But where’s the fun in that? Even monks are fond of a tipple.

  • Title photograph by William J. Furney.

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