Booze should be 'labelled like cigarettes'

By Nikkie Sutton

- Last updated on GMT

Charity demands: the RSPH wants more warnings on labels despite research suggesting the opposite
Charity demands: the RSPH wants more warnings on labels despite research suggesting the opposite

Related tags: Portman group, Alcoholic beverage

Alcoholic drinks should be labelled in the same way that cigarettes are, according to health charity the Royal Society for Public Health (RSPH).

The charity is proposing a new approach to the way alcoholic drinks are labelled in the UK, in response to what it calls an ‘alcohol health awareness vacuum’.

It wants it to be mandatory to include the Government’s guidelines to drink no more than 14 units a week on the labels.

The RSPH report called Labelling the Point​, highlights the contribution that could be made by better alcohol labelling and recommends a best practice labelling scheme that it says could raise awareness and reduce harm.

The scheme includes:

  • Mandatory inclusion of the Government’s low-risk drinking guidelines of no more than 14 units a week, potentially including an explicit cigarette-style warning of the link with health conditions such as bowel and breast cancer. It also suggested that traffic light colour coding could help drinkers make use of unit information in the context of the guidelines
  • A drink-drive warning on the front label as according to RSPH’s research, explicit warnings such as these are especially prioritised by young drinkers and more deprived socio-economic groups
  • Calorie content per container or per serve on the front label as RSPH’s research shows this could result in an almost 10% swing in consumer purchasing decisions from the highest alcohol drinks to the lowest, within all main drinks categories (beer, wine, spirits) and across all socio-economic groups.

This effect is particularly pronounced among young drinkers (aged 18 to 24), who could switch purchases from high to low-alcohol drinks by as much as 20%.

The report’s recommendations are informed by research, which includes a representative survey of almost 1,800 UK adults, originally commissioned in partnership with the Portman Group, the alcohol industry responsibility body.

However, the Portman Group has since moved to make alcohol labels even less informative to the public than they are at present, by releasing new guidance to manufacturers in September 2017 that no longer includes the Government’s low-risk drinking guidelines as a required element.

This is in spite of RSPH’s new research that has found that alcohol unit information is largely useless to many people unless contextualised by the Government’s guidelines.

RSPH is concerned that this signals that the Portman Group is no longer serious about setting a challenge for industry to play their part in informing the public and protecting their health.

Right to know

Alcohol Health Alliance chair Ian Gilmore also called for alcohol labelling and said drinkers had a right to know the drinking guidelines.

He said: “The decision last year by the Portman Group to weaken its recommendations on what should appear on alcohol labels clearly showed that alcohol producers wish to withhold information on alcohol and health from the public.

“Its decision not to endorse the findings of this report is yet more evidence that producers cannot be relied upon to communicate the risks linked with alcohol.

“It is clear from this research that the public want labels to include the drinking guidelines, and we know from our own research that 81% of the public want to see the guidelines on labels. Producers should accept this.

“Alcohol is linked with more than 200 disease and injury conditions, including heart disease, liver disease and at least seven types of cancer.

“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.

“With alcohol producers unwilling to communicate this information, the Government should now introduce mandatory labelling of all alcohol products, with labels clearly communicating the guidelines and health risks.”

Portman Group responded to RSPH’s claims and outlined its own research, which found “little public interest” in an overhaul of the labelling of drinks.

Chief executive John Timothy said: “The original research we co-funded with the RSPH found little public interest in a radical overhaul of drinks labelling and strong opposition to cramming more information on pack.

“The study shows that 86% of consumers only look at labels for factual information and branding with 80% saying they would like to see less cluttered labels. When asked specifically about health, 70% said the current approach was about right."

Remaining committed

He added: “These findings support the approach taken by the industry in developing updated voluntary guidance, which includes a whole section on how producers can display chief medical officer’s guidelines on labels.

“To suggest otherwise is misrepresentative. The Portman Group remains committed to providing consumers with accurate and accessible health information.

“Our members promote and support Drinkaware, which is recognised as the UK’s leading alcohol education charity and actively signpost people to its website for the most up-to-date guidance and advice.”

Meanwhile, a deadline set by the EU Commission for manufacturers to bring forward proposals for the self-regulated provision, at European level, of calorie labelling is set to expire in March this year.

Depending on the eventual outcome of Brexit, Britain may find itself left behind continental labelling advances unless it manages to use Brexit as an opportunity to implement a best practice scheme faster and more efficiently, RSPH has claimed.

RSPH chief executive Shirley Cramer emphasised the point that drinkers need to be aware of the health consequences of alcohol consumption.

She said: “Having a drink with friends or family is something many of us enjoy. However, the potential health consequences of alcohol consumption are more serious than many people realise.

“If and when people choose to drink, they have the right to do so with full knowledge of both what their drink contains and the effects it could have.

“Consumer health information and warnings are now mandatory and readily available on most products from tobacco to food and soft drinks, but alcohol continues to lag behind.

“If we are to raise awareness and reduce alcohol harm, this must change. Our research demonstrates the potential contribution better labelling could make to a healthier drinking culture, especially for younger drinkers and those from more deprived backgrounds who value clear health information the most.

“As Britain exits the EU, we ask that any additional regulatory freedom be used to strengthen that contribution – not to diminish it.” 

Related topics: Beer

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