You go to your local liquor store, grab a six-pack and notice something a little different on the can — a warning label, cautioning you about the negative impacts drinking could have on your health, similar to those found on cigarette packs. Would this make you rethink taking home those brews?
The Northern Territories Alcohol Labels Study, launched in Whitehorse in 2017, saw warning labels placed on beverages in the territory’s largest liquor store and prompted many people in Canada’s highest-alcohol-consuming region to cut back their drinking.
The world-first research from the Canadian Institute for Substance Research (CISUR) at UVic shows that well-designed warning labels are “an effective public health intervention, and can play a role curbing alcohol intake at home during the COVID-19 outbreak.”
When approximately 300,000 labels were applied to 98 per cent of the alcohol containers during the study period, Canadian alcohol industry lobby groups got involved. The lobby groups objected to the study, according to a press release from UVic, questioned the government’s authority to place labels on the containers in the first place and challenged the link between alcohol and cancer “despite decades of scientific evidence,” reads the release.
A month in, the study was stopped for three months and the cancer labels were removed. The study was able to continue with the use of only standard drink and low-risk drinking guideline labels until July 2018, and will be published this month in a special section of the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs.
Two of the papers in the journal — a media analysis and a legal analysis — look at the industry’s claims and analyze the alcohol lobby’s arguments. When it comes to Yukon’s right to affix the labels on alcohol containers, the legal analysis found the arguments “held no water” and governments had a duty to inform citizens they were selling a product that could cause cancer or risk leaving themselves exposed to future civil lawsuits. The media analysis found that 68 per cent of news stories supported the use of labels in Yukon.
“We found some striking similarities with the tobacco industry in the way the alcohol lobby groups consistently downplayed or outright denied the link between alcohol and cancer in news coverage,” says Kate Vallance, CISUR research associate and lead author on an evaluation of baseline survey data. “That’s worrying because they are not providing accurate information to the public and there are still no evidence-based warning labels available on alcohol containers in Canada, even though people support them.”
Researchers also found that people who bought alcohol with the labels better remembered national drinking guidelines and warning risks about cancer. An analysis of sales data found that per capita sales of labeled products dropped by 6.6 per cent compared to products in control sites that didn’t get the labels.
Researchers behind the study are recommending all alcohol containers be required to carry health warning labels.