Would alcohol warning labels effectively communicate the risks associated with alcohol consumption?
A recent study by Hydes et al. (2019) suggests that cancer risk in ‘cigarette terms’, consuming a bottle of wine is equivalent to 5 (10) cigarettes for men (women) per week. This raises the question as to whether the public need to be better informed on the risks associated with drinking alcohol?
Many countries do have warning labels on alcohol products that highlight the risks associated with drinking alcohol. For instance, in the USA a text-based warning label on alcohol products has been mandatory since 1989. The warning focuses on avoiding alcohol consumption when pregnant, driving or operating machinery. In France since 2007, there is use of a pictogram that suggests avoiding alcohol when pregnant. Some country policies also suggest that drinking alcohol is hazardous and that recommend moderation in drinking alcohol.
But how much do the public already know about risks that might arise due to alcohol consumption? Hassan and Shiu conducted (unpublished) research that has assessed students’ knowledge on common risks associated with alcohol consumption. Their research revealed that just under a quarter of students sampled thought that alcohol was ‘not at all likely’ to cause any harm to the liver. As such, this represents a worrying knowledge gap as alcohol is a significant contributory factor in diseases such as liver disease. The wider public also have relatively low knowledge of alcohol-related harms. For instance, only 47% of participants in an Australian study identified over consumption of alcohol as a risk factor for cancer. Therefore, cost effective measures such as alcohol warning labels should be considered by policy makers.
Yet, what is the evidence that alcohol warning labels affect alcohol consumption or shape attitudes and perceptions about drinking alcohol? A number of research studies have been conducted in this area and Hassan and Shiu (2018a) conducted a systematic review of the literature on alcohol warning labels to try to answer this question.
Hassan and Shiu (2018a) identified 15 articles (dated 2000-2015) that empirically assessed the effectiveness and/or design of alcohol warning labels. They identified a number of issues that make it difficult to provide an answer as to whether or not alcohol warning labels work. Firstly, most of the reported research assessed the USA warning that is not targeted at moderating or reducing alcohol consumption. Secondly, studies reported in the literature used diverse research approaches and measures that were not directly comparable. Overall, there is mixed reports on the effectiveness of alcohol warning labels.
Importantly, a number of studies show that public support for alcohol warning labels is high and that consumers would potentially use the information to guide their decision-making. Hassan and Shiu have also conducted a number of studies with student samples in the UK and found that 54% of students would take notice of a warning on an alcohol product. Hassan and Shiu (2018b) edited a special issue of Alcohol and Alcoholism to kick start more research in the area of alcohol warning messages to find ways to increase their effectiveness. Hopefully, as research gathers pace there will be increased understanding on how best to educate the public on the risks associated with alcohol consumption.
To find out more about Hassan and Shiu’s alcohol warning label research visit http://www.alcoholwarninglabels.info/
Publication date: 30 April 2019