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Alcohol warning labels and ‘valuable label real estate’

There’s a legal requirement in Australia for all packaged alcohol to show the alcohol content of the beverage and the number of standard drinks. But there’s no need for the label to bear any information…

The government’s discussions with the industry about voluntary labelling have not been transparent. Jesús León

There’s a legal requirement in Australia for all packaged alcohol to show the alcohol content of the beverage and the number of standard drinks. But there’s no need for the label to bear any information about the well-known health risks of consuming alcohol.

The Commonwealth government is being urged to introduce warnings on alcoholic beverages. The alcohol industry says it’s not completely opposed to labels, but is determined to find ways to protect its “valuable label real estate”.

The case for alcohol warnings

The Commonwealth government has received recommendations from its own advisory bodies that health information and warnings be mandated on alcoholic beverage containers, as part of a cohesive government strategy for reducing alcohol-related harm.

The first recommendation came from the National Preventative Health Taskforce in 2009. The second (in 2011), came from the food labelling review, which recommended specific warnings about drinking during pregnancy, and generic warnings about other health risks (such as alcohol is harmful to your health).

These calls for the Commonwealth to legislate for warnings on alcohol labels have been backed by the Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education, the Australian Medical Association and the National Alliance for Action on Alcohol.

Several other countries, such as the United States, South Korea and Brazil, require text-based warnings on alcohol containers. Studies of US labelling show evidence that alcohol warnings have effects on knowledge and attitudes about drinking, and “intervening variables”, such as intention to change drinking habits, willingness to discuss drinking, and being willing to intervene when seeing hazardous drinking in others.

There’s minimal evidence that warnings on alcoholic beverages change drinking behaviour. But if the labels are to impact behaviour, they need to be more graphic and visible than they have been in the past. Australia’s tobacco warnings are an example of how successful product warnings can be.

The Commonwealth’s response

In December 2011, the Commonwealth government announced it was still considering whether to introduce generic warnings on alcohol, but that it was “prudent” to have warnings on alcohol about the specific risks from drinking during pregnancy.

It’s safest to not drink while pregnant. U.S. Department of Agriculture

The National Health and Medical Research Council guidelines state that for women who are pregnant or planning a pregnancy, it is safest not to drink when pregnant or planning a pregnancy. This reflects the concern about maternal alcohol consumption and foetal alcohol spectrum disorders.

At this stage, the Commonwealth could have mandated a legal standard that alcoholic beverage containers bear pregnancy warnings in a prescribed format. Admittedly, this is not an entirely straight-forward process because of a treaty between Australia and New Zealand about joint food standards (including alcohol), and the sharing of food regulation powers between the Commonwealth and the states/territories.

Regardless, the government hasn’t mandated warnings. Instead, it has given the alcohol industry two years – until December 2013 – to introduce these warnings on a voluntary basis. And it seems that the government will only pass a labelling law if it’s not satisfied with what the industry has done by that deadline.

Self-regulation is the wrong approach

Alcohol labelling is not an appropriate matter for industry self-regulation. Foetal alcohol spectrum disorders are a serious public health issue that government has the responsibility and capacity to address. The alcohol industry has no special expertise in devising solutions to such problems. And it has a vested interest in limiting the size and impact of the warnings.

Allowing industry to self-regulate reduces both government and industry accountability. And it prevents a proper parliamentary debate about alcohol labelling that the public can participate in.

Indeed, the government’s discussions with the industry about voluntary labelling haven’t even been transparent. Has the government promised not to regulate if the industry does X or Y? And does it have any criteria by which it will judge whether the alcohol industry has done a good enough job at the end of 2013?

The industry’s weak voluntary efforts

The alcohol industry’s efforts to get pregnancy warnings onto alcohol containers are being lead by the industry-funded organisation, DrinkWise. Drinkwise recommends that that one of the following warnings be used on alcoholic beverages:

There has been poor take-up of the DrinkWise pregnancy warnings. As at June 2012, only 4% of surveyed beers and ciders carried such a message, along with only 2% of wine, spirits and ready-to-drink products.

The industry is also not doing well at making the warnings visible or prominent. The same recent survey found that where the surveyed alcohol products bore a DrinkWise message, in 98% of cases, the message took up less than 5% of the alcohol label or packaging. It also found that labels were “on the margins …and rarely in central or prominent positions”.

The Commonwealth should not waste any more time on industry self-regulation of alcohol warnings. This government is generally too reticent in its regulation of the alcohol industry. In December 2013, it should act to mandate prominent, strongly-worded, graphic alcohol warning labels, and commission a proper study on the impact of those labels.

This is the ninth part of our series looking at alcohol and the drinking culture in Australia. Click on the links below to read the other articles:

Part One: A brief history of alcohol consumption in Australia

Part Two: Social acceptance of alcohol allows us to ignore its harms

Part Three: My drinking, your problem: alcohol hurts non-drinkers too

Part Four: Alcohol-fuelled violence on the rise despite falling consumption

Part Five: ‘As a matter of fact, I’ve got it now’: alcohol advertising and sport

Part Six: Advertising’s role in how young people interact with alcohol

Part Seven: Big Alcohol and Big Tobacco – boozem buddies?

Part Eight: Explainer: foetal alcohol spectrum disorders

Part Ten: Forbidden fruit: are children tricked into wanting alcohol?

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19 Comments sorted by

  1. Patricia Byers

    retired

    If it does come to pass, make sure it's in text that doesn't have to be read with a magnifying glass.

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  2. John Phillip
    John Phillip is a Friend of The Conversation.

    Grumpy Old Man

    For Pete's sake you made the argument against more nanny state labelling with your opening statement " there’s no need for the label to bear any information about the well-known health risks of consuming alcohol."

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  3. John Phillip
    John Phillip is a Friend of The Conversation.

    Grumpy Old Man

    Havent you got the cart before the horse when you close with the idea that the government 'should act to mandate prominent, strongly-worded, graphic alcohol warning labels, and commission a proper study on the impact of those labels." If they need a study to decide whether or not he labels make any difference, why the hell would you lead with that suggestion? What the government should do is stay the hell out of our lives as much as is possible.

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  4. Peter Ormonde

    Farmer

    I quite like the real estate now being displayed on tobacco products myself ... sets a great precedent ... a starting point for discussion. A greenfield site.

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  5. neral

    logged in via Twitter

    Why the heck the alcohol industry should get away with special treatment is beyond me. Health warning labels, sure as it makes a point, but they should also include an ingredients list and nutritional label just like other drinks. Then with access to information consumers can make up their own minds and so that should be the role of government to regulate and enforce but otherwise keep the heck out of the market by allowing the alcohol industry to be treated differently. Now if it wasn't so early in the morning I'd grab a beer!

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    1. Rosemary Stanton

      Nutritionist & Visiting Fellow at University of New South Wales

      In reply to neral

      Absolutely agree. What possible reason could there be to exempt alcoholic drinks from having to label their kilojoule content. The alcohol content is listed, but without kilojoules, many people are unaware that alcoholic beverages may be making a major contribution to their excess body fat.

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    2. Peter Ormonde

      Farmer

      In reply to Rosemary Stanton

      As a practising diabetic I reckon a few pointers towards sugar would be handy too. But there's more to it than just consumer education I'm afraid.

      In fact I've devoted quite a large bit of the last 15 minutes to extending the plain tobacco packaging concept to pubs - where labelling solutions don't easily apply.

      I'm thinking along the lines of a mandatory sludgy khaki decor adorned with a range of happy snaps of rotting livers, bloated hearts and brain-damaged kids - maybe the odd car crash ... Talk about responsible service of alcohol.

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    3. Annabelle Leve

      Researcher/Educator

      In reply to Peter Ormonde

      Mmm, that sounds like a pleasant night out. But regarding diabetes and alcohol, as a one time teenage type one diabetic, I learnt the hard way about alcohol and blood sugar levels - not as simple as you might imagine. Alcohol itself seems to have the affect of lowering blood sugar levels, whilst the sugar content has the opposite effect. I have never had any proper guidelines about this, but after years of experience, I avoid sweet cocktails and mixed drinks, and stick to wine, beer, cider, none of which have an effect on my blood sugar levels - I can only assume because any sugar content is matched by the alcohol effects. My point is, alcohol has affects on bodies and minds that cannot possibly be summed up by a line of warning text on a bottle.

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    4. Peter Ormonde

      Farmer

      In reply to Annabelle Leve

      I think a general sort advisory might do it: like "DON'T EVEN THINK ABOUT IT!"

      Plenty about on alcohol and sugar nowdays:

      http://diabetes.webmd.com/drinking-alcohol

      http://www.health.com/health/condition-article/0,,20188721,00.html

      Some suggested benefit for the ticker from red wine (in moderation) ... but unfortunatelly the alcohol itself will give your sugar a kick along, regardless of what it's wrapped up in - crem de menthe or beer. Alcohol is metabolised in exactly the same manner as fats and will have a similar impact.

      I'd be having a very close look at the sugar content as well - cider? I would be most suspicious. But whoever told you the alcohol would lower your sugar was dead wrong I'm afraid.

      If you can't find any info on your favourite tipple let me know here and I'll track some down.

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    5. Annabelle Leve

      Researcher/Educator

      In reply to Peter Ormonde

      Thanks for the paternalistic and no doubt well researched advice but give me a break - I'm talking about lifetime experience, 36 of them as a diabetic. Yes as a diabetic I have been given the don't even think about it, so many times and in so many ways. Well thank god I went against the odds and even if my experience may not 'fit' with the science, it sort of fits along with the 'just say no' approach, safer perhaps, but without saying yes occasionally, how can you ever know if just perhaps, the science doesn't give much leeway with having fun and taking chances. Again, in my experience, drinking beer regularly has no affect on my blood sugar levels. And I get to enjoy myself too.
      (I appreciate the offer for more info but I think I'll just have another beer thanks, there's a million bits of advice out there but just living a little has proved more fun in the long run).

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    6. Peter Ormonde

      Farmer

      In reply to Annabelle Leve

      Sorry ... didn't mean to be paternalistic ... just would not like anyone reading this to think that alcohol reduces blood sugar.

      You can drink whatever you like of course but misinforming folks like that is oddly mischievous. Someone might believe you... someone at least that doesn't know you personally

      Incidentally congrats on getting over Type 1 diabetes... a miracle ... there is no cure ... it's a keeper.

      Doesn't one encounter odd make-believe creatures on this interweb, folks?

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    7. Annabelle Leve

      Researcher/Educator

      In reply to Peter Ormonde

      Didn't want to keep this one going Peter but yes, I have had type one diabetes for 36 years and I believe I still do, and unless there is a miracle in my lifetime, always will. Thanks because it's not easy and a guilt free drink is the least I deserve.

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    8. neral

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to Annabelle Leve

      Annabelle, I hope there is a miracle in the not too distant future for you. And you make just the point: consumers are getting a rotten deal from a self-interested and self-regulated alcohol industry, and are totally abandoned by our government for not legislating for uniform nutritional/energy/this stuff may kill you etc. labelling across all the stuff we buy and then put in our mouths. The choice for a fair (because we can't all afford to have a lab to test food in our homes) appraisal of what we think is good for us or not is taken away from us."Trust us, we sell alcohol concoctions." Yeah, right you goons (and I do make my own beer, drink a bit now and then). So all I am asking is for the government to make things fair.

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    9. neral

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to Annabelle Leve

      Not meaning to carry on like a pork chop, but a quick review of the Australia New Zealand Food Standards Code will prove the point on differential treatment of different foods/beverages.

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    10. neral

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to neral

      Here I go again... Just cracked the plastic seal on a bottle of vodka (yeah, well, reading so much about alcohol rubs off?!) and of course my enlightened labelling self turns to the label and it says:

      ENJOY WITH ABSOLUT RESPONSIBILITY

      Cynical buggers! However, it demonstrates clearly, I think, the point for government intervention when at least one major brand/importer makes an absolute joke of it. If I didn't shell out a few hard-earned dollars for the bottle I'd do something untoward with it...or maybe if I get drunk enough I will (audience laughs at the irony).

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  6. Brian Byrnes

    Retired

    Could the author or anybody else direct me to research which establishes the difference (if any) in life expectancy between drinkers and non drinkers ?

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  7. Michael Glass

    Teacher

    The industry's tardy approach to warning labelling presents the Government with an opportunity to do what is right about sensible warning labels on all alcoholic drinks. The fact that the labels will be the same in Australia and New Zealand should mean that the External Affairs powers in the Constitution kick in, and that should kick out any interference from the various states and territories. It should be easier to get an agreement between Australia and New Zealand than between the Commonwealth and the States.

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  8. Jeremy Olm

    Director of Communications at More Estate Agents

    I agree with Neral – the more the government interferes in people’s lives, the more resistance they’re going to get. Why make a big deal about how much real estate a health warning would occupy when it doesn’t have the impact (intended or otherwise) projected? Give people information they will find useful and then they’ll be more apt to heed advice or warnings. And yes – they have every right to make up their minds for themselves!

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