Alcohol labelling should tackle health ‘awareness vacuum’

The Royal Society for Public Health has said all alcoholic labelling should carry “mandatory warnings” to tackle the “awareness vacuum” among the public concerning alcohol and health – but is the public interested?

A proposed image from RSPH of how the warnings and guidelines might be displayed.

In a report conducted with The Portman Group, the RSPH said the public was still not aware enough of current drinking guidelines or the links between alcohol and diseases such as various cancers.

The RSPH proposed using traffic light colour coding – such as those used on other food items in the UK to indicate levels of fat, salt and sugar – and suggested other information such as the government’s 14 unit guideline, the link between alcohol and cancer and drink driving warnings.

Professor Shirley Cramer of the RSPH told the BBC that 90% of Britons were apparently unaware of the link between alcohol and cancer.*

She said alcohol “continues to lag behind” other items such as tobacco and soft drinks which now carry warnings on their packaging. “If we are to raise awareness and reduce alcohol harm, this must change.”

The announcement was met with enthusiasm by Sir Ian Gilmore of Alcohol Health Alliance who said alcohol producers were, “withholding information on alcohol and health from the public.”

His statement had echoes of a report last year that claimed the industry was spreading “lies” about the link between alcohol and cancer – something that was shown to be a deliberate misrepresentation if not an outright lie when examined by the drinks business.

Gilmore added that, according to research conducted by the AHA, 81% of the public want to see guidelines on labels.**

“We all have a right to know the drinking guidelines, along with the risks associated with alcohol, so that we are empowered to make informed choices about our drinking.”

His statement was countered however by John Timothy, chief executive of The Portman Group, who said that the joint study with the RSPH showed that there was “little public interest in a radical overhaul of drinks labelling” and 86% of respondents to the survey wanted purely factual information and 80% wanted les cluttered labelling.

Christopher Snowden, head of Lifestyle Economics at the Institute of Economic Affairs, added: “Mandatory labelling could help to inform consumers if it is strictly factual. Calorie counts, for example, should be carefully considered after Brexit. But the new drinking guidelines have no scientific credibility and companies should not be forced to put suspect information on their products.”

Writing on this subject in The Spectator, he argued that given the vagaries of the amount of alcohol needed to be consumed to cause various types of cancer and the overall very low rate of death from alcohol-related diseases in general, simply stating alcohol causes cancer is a “lie by omission”.

“It is only the verbose yet truthful label, not the crude cancer warning favoured by paternalists, that can be ethically justified if the aim is to inform rather than alarm,” he writes in his book ‘Kill Joys‘.



*Statistic from another report conducted in 2015, where 2,100 people were asked: ‘Which, if any, health conditions do you think can result from drinking too much alcohol?’

**From a September 2017 survey conducted by OnePoll on behalf of AHA, The question was: “In regards to labels on alcohol containers, to what extent do you support or object to measures that force alcohol companies into providing clear, legible alcohol consumption guidelines?”

2 Responses to “Alcohol labelling should tackle health ‘awareness vacuum’”

  1. Nick Oakley says:

    I’m sure that off label campaigns are much more effective than having cluttered labels, full of information that no-one reads. The pregnant woman symbol for example. I wonder how many women find out about the dangers to the unborn child by reading on the label of the product. Much more relevant would be to put allergens on labelling (where they are an optional ingredient). Everyone one knows what alcohol does. And the alcohol level is already on the bottle by law.

  2. It has been revealed that Public Health England made researchers alter their guidance in order to justify them lowering the alcohol guidelines:

    “The more we learn about the process that generated the new guidelines, the more questions are raised about PHE. Far from being an honest broker in this story, the agency seems to have acted more like an activist group working towards a particular conclusion. Its relationship with the anti-drink lobby, which extends to holding its Alcohol Leadership Board meetings at the offices of a temperance group, is worryingly cosy for a state agency. Its decision to appoint leading anti-alcohol campaigners such as Ian Gilmore and Katherine Brown, both of the Alcohol Health Alliance, to the guidelines committee shows that it has become politicised.

    That will be the Ian Gilmore quoted in the above piece.

    So no, perhaps we won’t have alcohol consumption guidelines on labels, until they are compiled in an honest manner.

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