When Klaus Schneider sorts his bottles in the sales room of his winery in the Palatinate town of Dirmstein, he looks particularly concerned at the labels these days. Schneider is also the German winegrowing president and fears that EU plans will mean that he will have to print warnings about the health risk of alcohol consumption on wine bottles in the future. "That would also be fatal for the design, but also for the perception of the consumer, the customer," he says.
Probably no shock images as with tobacco
The European Parliament's Special Committee on Combating Cancer is calling for these warnings to be applied to all alcoholic beverages as part of an overall strategy in the fight against cancer in Europe. Because the members are convinced that alcohol represents an increased risk of cancer and rely on statements from the World Health Organization (WHO). "In Europe, an estimated ten percent of all cancer cases in men and three percent of all cancer cases in women can be attributed to alcohol," says the report, which is expected to be debated in the European Parliament on February 15. Above all, it is about oral cavity, pharynx, larynx, esophagus or breast cancer. The goal is to reduce harmful alcohol consumption by at least 10 percent by 2025.
The bottle labels are a small part of these plans. In addition to health warnings, nutritional values and ingredients should then be printed on the back. How exactly that should look is not yet clear. But the warnings should probably not be quite as drastic as with tobacco. Shocking images such as smoker's lungs and messages such as "Smoking can kill" have been mandatory on cigarette packs since 2016.
It is also about economic interests
In the USA, such warnings for alcohol have long been practice – with moderate success, as older studies show. Nevertheless, the wine industry is concerned. Weinbau President Schneider can imagine that people in this country would be put off by this: "All in all, there is definitely a risk that the image of the wine could be damaged. For the winegrowers, that would mean that there might be a reduction in wine consumption. That would naturally come with a loss of income." He fears that there could also be negative effects on gastronomy and tourism.
It's not just about a small warning on the back of a wine bottle, but about tangible economic interests and public funding, says Werner Eckert, SWR expert for the environment and nutrition. Behind the protest of the winegrowers hides "the fear that they could be like the tobacco industry. The fact that people say once it has been established that wine is alcohol and alcohol is harmful, sooner or later the question arises as to why the European Union promotes the cultivation of wine – with money, with subsidies, when the product itself is harmful." Ultimately, the companies also fear for the subsidies for viticulture.
Ads for "moderate consumption"
According to the Federal Statistical Office, Rhineland-Palatinate has by far the largest area under vines in Germany with 64,524 hectares. The responsible viticulture minister Daniela Schmitt from the FDP is also concerned that viticulture could come under serious pressure with the new rules: "We experience that our wines are cultural assets, they are luxury goods. And if consumed moderately, they are definitely enriching. " The Federal Ministry of Agriculture does not want to comment on the plans as long as nothing is certain.
Consumer advocates see a lot of good in the move – and welcome the transparency of nutritional values and ingredients, which has long been mandatory for other foods. In the future, consumers will be able to inform themselves better and then decide more consciously whether they want to drink wine or beer, says Rita Rausch, a consultant for food and nutrition at the consumer advice center in Rhineland-Palatinate. However, she believes that a warning about the health risks of alcohol alone is not very effective. "With accompanying information, for example a campaign, that's of use to consumers." It's not just about the dangers of cancer, but about all the complications of excessive alcohol consumption.
Two attempts have already failed
It is unclear whether the plans will get a majority in the European Parliament. There were already attempts of this kind in 2006 and 2015 – both failed. This time, too, the opinions of the factions are divided. Christine Schneider, CDU member of the European Parliament, doesn't think much of warnings and has even collected signatures against them: "I think that in the discussion – and that's my suggestion – we have to differentiate much more between moderate wine consumption and alcohol abuse or a harmful consumption of alcohol."
Jutta Paulus, Member of the European Parliament for the Greens/EFA parliamentary group from Rhineland-Palatinate, sees things very differently. She was herself a member of the special committee on combating cancer and is convinced that its plans will strengthen health protection and that Parliament will agree to them next week: "I think it makes sense for all alcoholic beverages that are really intoxicating to say that to point out that there is a risk of addiction here."
If the EU Parliament approves the final report on the package of measures for cancer prevention "Beating Cancer Plans" next Tuesday, there is still a long, formal road ahead. The Commission will then present a corresponding draft next year. The subsequent legislative procedure should then not be completed before 2024. Only then will it become clear whether customers will ultimately be influenced by a note on the back of a wine bottle.