I have been meaning to blog for the past few weeks about a new Turkish regulation that will require pictorial warnings on alcoholic beverages. The issue was discussed at the October meeting of the TBT Committee, during which several WTO Members expressed concerns about the regulation.
Turkey has provided a description of the regulation in English here. In short, the regulation requires placement of three graphic images depicting that alcohol should not be sold to minors, consumers should not drink and drive and alcohol should not be consumed when pregnant. In addition, the textual statement that “alcohol is not your friend” must be included. The warning will look as follows:
This regulation will be accompanied by a number of other requirements, including one that would prevent non-alcoholic drinks from bearing the branding of alcoholic drinks and another concerning whether residue from alcoholic beverages remains in product packaging.
Those following alcohol control in the TBT Committee will be familiar with a Thai proposal that came before the committee in 2010. That proposal would have seen the use of graphic warnings on alcoholic beverages similar to those found on tobacco products. Although Thailand ultimately stepped back from that proposal, it is not clear what role WTO played in decision-making.
It will be interesting to see how the Turkish regulation is addressed in the TBT Committee. In my view, there are at least four issues to watch.
- It appears already that some WTO Members have implied that warnings are more trade restrictive than necessary to protect human health and could be substituted with the less trade restrictive alternative of information campaigns. This argument is also often made by the tobacco industry despite the fact that information campaigns and warnings reach different groups and have different effects.
- It also appears from the discussion in the TBT Committee that some Members are of the view that consumers need only be warned about “excessive” alcohol consumption. This line of thinking might impeach the line that “alcohol is not your friend”, but does not seem to question the pictorial warnings relating to underage consumption, drinking and driving and drinking while pregnant. It may also be worth recalling Thailand’s argument in the TBT Committee that there is no “safe” level of consumption. Here, we can expect the discussion to lead to what evidence there is of risk and to the principle that each Member may select its risk tolerance (appropriate level of protection).
- One criticism the tobacco industry has leveled at warning labels (outside of the WTO context) is that they actively seek to discourage consumption rather than merely conveying information. In this context, it will be interesting to see how the line that “alcohol is not your friend” is treated by WTO Members. This is clearly an attempt to discourage consumption, but would also appear to pursue a legitimate objective given that consumption may be harmful to health.
- Members like the EU and Canada have large graphic health warnings on tobacco packaging and are supportive of Australia’s position on plain tobacco packaging. It will, therefore, be interesting to see how these Members reconcile their positions. Will any objections be specific to alcohol, or will they cross the line into questions of principle that are inconsistent with their positions on plain packaging or imperil their own regulations?