Home > Industry influence over global alcohol policies via the World Trade Organization: a qualitative analysis of discussions on alcohol health warning labelling, 2010–2019.

Doyle, Anne (2022) Industry influence over global alcohol policies via the World Trade Organization: a qualitative analysis of discussions on alcohol health warning labelling, 2010–2019. Drugnet Ireland, Issue 81, Spring 2022, p. 8.

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Evidence of the harms caused by alcohol consumption globally, including the three million annual deaths worldwide,1 has encouraged national governments to commit to strategies to reduce alcohol-related harms. These include those set out in the World Health Organization (WHO) 2010 Global strategy to reduce the harmful use of alcohol2 and the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals as well as through the development of the WHO Global alcohol action plan.3 It is well-recognised that policies to control the harms associated with alcohol consumption need to be instituted at national level to be effective; however, national governments face resistance and opposition from the alcohol industry when attempting to implement such policies. Common arguments by the alcohol industry when lobbying against such policies are that they are not required and are expensive to implement. Instead, it proposes alternatives, including information campaigns and a focus on subpopulations only, such as those pregnant, young people, or drink drivers. In its efforts to influence decision-making, the alcohol industry often questions the legality and effectiveness of proposed interventions and the extent of alcohol-related harms, citing the benefits of moderate consumption.

A 2022 study aimed to identify whether the alcohol industry sought to influence alcohol policy through arguments made by national government representatives in the Technical Barriers to Trade (TBT) Committee of the World Trade Organization (WTO) when discussing health warning labels on alcohol products.4 


The analysis involved examining the minutes and referenced documents related to discussions on alcohol health warning labelling policies that occurred at the WTO’s TBT Committee meetings between January 1995 and December 2019.

From these discussion notes, the authors identified all occasions where WTO members specifically acknowledged that their statements reflected comments raised by the alcohol industry. The authors then categorised all further WTO member statements to identify whether they featured common arguments used by the alcohol industry in domestic policy forums to stall alcohol policy. These were classified as either policy positions (alcohol industry arguments regarding policies and how they should be developed and enforced) or discursive strategies (relating to how the policy issue, its causes, and consequences were described, as well as other statements concerning the appropriateness of the policy or need for reform). 


Some 212 statements in 83 documents were identified from TBT Committee minutes, notifications to the WTO of the policy proposal, and written comments by WTO members referring to alcohol health warning labelling policies proposed by Thailand, Kenya, the Dominican Republic, Israel, Turkey, Mexico, India, South Africa, Ireland, and South Korea. Just seven of the 212 statements (3.3%) were attributed to the alcohol industry and 117 statements (55.2%) featured alcohol industry arguments. Evidence of instances in which WTO members’ arguments resembled the alcohol industry’s common position in domestic contexts included the following:

  • 39 statements claimed the measures were unnecessarily restrictive.
  • 46 statements questioned the evidence behind the policy decision, downplaying the need for policy intervention.
  • 57 statements highlighted the negative unintended consequences for manufacturers and the economy.
  • 15 statements proposed alternative policies (e.g. information and education campaigns).

Arguments against alcohol labelling focused on reframing alcohol-related harms, by minimising the problem and suggesting that the harms were restricted to a particular cohort and therefore population-wide interventions were not required. Industry partnerships were also proposed in developing policies relating to labelling. 


This study suggests that the alcohol industry may have influenced WTO members to promote their own interests and influence alcohol policy internationally. WTO members rarely explicitly referenced alcohol industry demands but evidence of alcohol-industry rhetoric was evident from many of the proposed arguments. The study highlights the need for increased vigilance and transparency about vested interests in order to effectively implement national alcohol policies.

1  World Health Organization (2018) Global status report on alcohol and health 2018. Geneva: World Health Organization. https://www.drugsandalcohol.ie/29701/

2  World Health Organization (2010) Global strategy to reduce the harmful use of alcohol. Geneva: World Health Organization. https://www.drugsandalcohol.ie/14845/

3  World Health Organization (2021) Global alcohol action plan 2022–2030 to strengthen implementation of the Global Strategy to Reduce the Harmful Use of Alcohol. 2nd draft, unedited. Geneva: World Health Organization. Available online at:

4  Barlow P, Gleeson D, O’Brien P and Labonté R (2022) Industry influence over global alcohol policies via the World Trade Organization: a qualitative analysis of discussions on alcohol health warning labelling, 2010–19. Lancet Global Health, 10(3): e429–e437. https://www.drugsandalcohol.ie/35608/

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