Why alcohol health warning labels are a good idea: findings from the latest Global Drug Survey

May 9, 2018 by Adam Winstock And Emma Louise Davies, The Conversation
Credit: lOvE lOvE/Shutterstock.com

Drink-driving and drinking while pregnant are socially unacceptable in many countries, yet when it comes to other alcohol-related health risks, public awareness is low.

Globally around 3.3m people die from causes directly related to – the top ones being heart disease, cancer, liver disease and accidents. However, a 2016 survey of 2,100 adults in the UK found that just 13% of respondents identified cancer as a potential risk of alcohol consumption.

It seems that the and governments aren't too bothered about changing this. In fact, mandatory health warnings for alcohol are rare. Across the EU, which boasts the highest per capita alcohol consumption in the world, there is no legislation requiring health warnings.

We know that the most effective strategies to change behaviour and reduce alcohol consumption are legislative. These include raising taxes, minimum unit pricing and lower drink-drive limits. But the alcohol industry lobbies hard against interventions that threaten profits, and most governments seem to defer to the industry's preferred alternative of self-regulation.

The industry and governments don't seem that keen on health warning labels either. One argument is that don't change behaviour or that drinkers don't want to have their pleasure spoiled by uncomfortable truths. And it's true that information in isolation of other public health and health promotion strategies may be of limited value. But when it comes to motivating behaviour change, it can be helpful to raise awareness and challenge people's beliefs about their behaviour.

Health messages, if done well, could raise awareness and for some people might be the switch that gets them thinking about less. Providing accurate information can also help to counter common myths and misunderstandings. For example, ambiguity about the potential health benefits of moderate drinking can be the "excuse" we need to resist changing our behaviour.

On the other hand, it is important to acknowledge evidence that health messages that try to induce fear often backfire – images of diseased lungs on cigarette packaging, being a case in point. Smokers don't want to be confronted by the negative consequences of their behaviour and they may smoke more to deal with the discomfort experienced. The same is likely to be true of alcohol health warnings.

Possible label. Author provided
Some labels that might work

For the latest Global Drug Survey (GDS2018) – a survey of 130,000 people from more than 40 countries – we explored the potential of seven different health messages to change people's drinking habits. We chose a variety of health and social issues to focus on and used a mixture of positive messages, highlighting the benefits of reducing consumption, and negative messages, highlighting risks.

The results show that cancer remains the area that people least associate with alcohol use, and a message such as "drinking less can reduce your risk of seven different types of cancer" could get almost 40% of drinkers to think about drinking less.

The top two other messages that people reported would make them – or maybe make them – think about drinking less were: "Even people with heavy alcohol use can reduce their risk of liver disease by cutting down by even a small amount" (31%), and a label highlighting that a bottle of wine or six small beers has the same number of calories as a hamburger and fries (28%).

Our study also shows that different cultures may be more or less responsive to health warning labels, with Scandinavian countries, which certainly have high rates of alcohol-related harms, seemingly less concerned than those from South America and the Mediterranean.

Of particular interest was the relatively high rate of disbelief of the statement: "Most people get little or no health benefit from alcohol use, even at low levels of drinking". The subtle message that a little alcohol is good for your health is one the alcohol industry is fiercely protective of, and our results show that more work is required to diminish this falsehood.

Conversely, the label stating that alcohol increases the rate of violence and abuse was the one that was believed most by participants.

Why alcohol health warning labels are a good idea: findings from the latest Global Drug Survey

Globally, this was also rated as the most personally relevant label, closely followed by those about calories and the benefits of having two days off. This perhaps reflects that people are more concerned about the immediate effects of drinking.

Again, there were regional variations; our findings suggest that countries in South America and Eastern Europe may be more affected by the social impact of alcohol than other countries.

Self-regulation doesn't work

Consumers of alcohol, like any other drug, need to be given the facts about the risks they expose themselves to when they drink. They need to know that risk is dependent on how much they drink and that drinking less reduces that risk. They need specific positive messages that allow people to feel OK about making decisions that may improve their health and well-being.

In the same way that plain packaging and on tobacco products were used as part of a broader public health approach to reducing consumption, appropriate and proportionate health messages on alcohol should be explored as a cheap, easy-to-implement strategy that could raise awareness of alcohol-related harms.

The latest Global Drug Survey supports the call for mandatory health warning labels on . An industry that makes profits from selling a product will never embrace anything that might lead to people drinking less. A self-regulated industry will always regulate to optimise profits not .

Explore further: Drinkers support clearer labelling on alcohol products

Related Stories

Drinkers support clearer labelling on alcohol products

May 2, 2018
New research led by the University of Bristol has found that drinkers support clearer labelling of alcohol products, including the provision of unit, calorie and health information, which would address current gaps in public ...

Experts urge review of alcohol consumption guidelines

April 13, 2018
Thresholds for safer alcohol use might need lowering, University of Queensland drug and alcohol experts have cautioned.

Marketing of lower strength alcohol products may increase drinking

February 7, 2018
Wines and beers with lower alcohol content aren't being actively marketed as alternatives to regular strength alcohol products and thus may not be promoting healthier drinking habits in consumers, according to a study published ...

Q&A: Is daily drinking problem drinking?

February 21, 2018
Dear Mayo Clinic: Is it possible to become an alcoholic just by having one or two drinks nightly? I have a glass or two of wine with dinner but never drink to the point of feeling drunk. Should I be concerned?

New alcohol guidelines unlikely to have a direct impact on drinking

February 10, 2016
The UK's new alcohol guidelines are unlikely to have a direct impact on drinking, but they do raise awareness of harm and so may alter social attitudes towards alcohol, suggests an expert in The BMJ today.

Drinking hot tea associated with five-fold increased risk for esophageal cancer for some

February 6, 2018
Consuming hot tea at high temperatures is associated with an increased risk for esophageal cancer in those who also drink alcohol and smoke cigarettes. The findings, based on long-term follow-up in more than 450,000 participants, ...

Recommended for you

Juul e-cigarettes pose addiction risk for young users, study finds

October 19, 2018
Teens and young adults who use Juul brand e-cigarettes are failing to recognize the product's addictive potential, despite using it more often than their peers who smoke conventional cigarettes, according to a new study by ...

Self-lubricating latex could boost condom use: study

October 17, 2018
A perpetually unctuous, self-lubricating latex developed by a team of scientists in Boston could boost the use of condoms, they reported Wednesday in the journal Royal Society Open Science.

Engineered enzyme eliminates nicotine addiction in preclinical tests

October 17, 2018
Scientists at Scripps Research have successfully tested a potential new smoking-cessation treatment in rodents.

Nutrition has a greater impact on bone strength than exercise

October 17, 2018
One question that scientists and fitness experts alike would love to answer is whether exercise or nutrition has a bigger positive impact on bone strength.

How healthy will we be in 2040?

October 17, 2018
A new scientific study of forecasts and alternative scenarios for life expectancy and major causes of death in 2040 shows all countries are likely to experience at least a slight increase in lifespans. In contrast, one scenario ...

Study finds evidence of intergenerational transmission of trauma among ex-POWs from the Civil War

October 16, 2018
A trio of researchers affiliated with the National Bureau of Economic Research has found evidence that suggests men who were traumatized while POWs during the U.S. Civil War transmitted that trauma to their offspring—many ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.