Introducing Health Warning Labels On Alcohol: Do We Really Take Notice Of Them?

In the last few years, there have been an increasing number of reports about the misuse of alcohol. News reports frequently show young people staggering out of pubs and nightclubs. There has also been a rise in the number of councils banning public drinking in the town centre. The political class have also discussed what to do about increasing levels of problem drinking, and the All Party Group on Alcohol Misuse has recommended that labels should be used to warn the drinker about the harmful side-effects of using alcohol. These warnings would be similar to those currently used on tobacco packets and the All Party Group recommended that labelling should include evidence-based warnings about health side-effects. The question is whether those warnings would really have an effect on drinkers?

Current Labelling policies

Any drinks over an alcohol content of 1.2% must contain a warning, and must also contain a list of mandatory requirements. The current labelling policies for alcoholic drinks in the UK include a clear name and brand, a use-by date and a description of the product. Also, in one clear field-of-vision label, the manufacturers must include the nominal volume of the drink, the alcohol strength of the drink in percentage of volume, country of origin, variety of wine, bottlers’ details, and any allergenic ingredients. Other, optional items may be left off the label as long as it does not conflict or interfere with the mandatory details required. Many wine makers choose to include further details of the wine, including region and location of the vineyard where the wine grapes were produced.

Does Labelling work?

The question of whether health warning labels really work can best be answered by assessing the use of health labels in other parts of the world. For example, the US has had some experience with warning labels for the last 10 years. It has been suggested by a report from the Centre for Science in the Public Interest that there is no current evidence that Americans even read, let alone take notice of, those labels. 73% of drinkers questioned said that these labels were not prominent enough and 63% said that they don’t notice the label at all. This tends to suggest that, even if labels were to include health warnings, it is not likely that they would be very effective or influential.

What else might help?

Evidence from the US suggests that it is not enough to just place a warning on a label. Instead drinkers need to be repeatedly told about these warnings. In addition to warnings on alcohol labels, there also needs to be a concerted effort to tell people of the effects of long-term drinking. The alcohol industry is already committed to labelling their bottles and cans with health warnings, but the government needs to do more to inform people about their choices. For example, food labelling, which can work in a similar way to alcohol warnings, only really succeeds in changing people’s eating habits when there is already public information available about those warnings, and where to find them.

Tammy Wiltshire is the Marketing Manager for one of the UK’s leading label manufacturers- Labelnet. Tammy can see the benefits of placing health warning labels on alcohol bottles and believes that by including warnings on bottles this will give consumers sufficient advice.