01/01/2023; STAR mail; Australia

Call to improve alcohol health warning labels as new study finds industry’s DrinkWise labels are failing consumers

Cancer Council Victoria’s new research has revealed adult drinkers exposed to alcoholic products carrying health warning labels are more likely to consider reducing their alcohol intake when compared to those exposed to no health warning labels or to the industry-developed DrinkWise labels that currently appear on some alcohol products in Australia.

The study, published in PLOS ONE today, repeatedly exposed 1,755 Australian adults to images of beer, wine and spirit products that carried one of three different types of public health warning labels that communicated alcohol-related harms (text only, text/illustration or text/photo), compared to products displaying industry-developed DrinkWise labels or those with no health warning labels.

After repeated exposure across a week, participants shown alcoholic products with the health warning labels that included text and simple illustrations were more than 1.5 times more likely to say they intended to reduce the amount of alcohol they would drink over the next week compared to those who did not see any health warnings (57.5 per cent v 40.3 per cent) and compared to those who saw the DrinkWise labels (57.5 per cent v 43.5 per cent).

The drinkers who were shown alcoholic products with the text/illustration health warnings labels were also more than twice as likely to say they would avoid drinking alcohol completely in the next month compared to those exposed to the DrinkWise labels (19.6 per cent v 8.6 per cent).

Dr Emily Brennan, Senior Research Fellow at Cancer Council Victoria’s Centre for Behavioural Research in Cancer and lead author, said overall the study found Australian drinkers who viewed alcoholic products bearing public health warning labels felt more concerned and worried than those who only saw products with the DrinkWise or no health warning labels.

“Like tobacco companies, the alcohol industry has strongly resisted mandatory health warning labels on alcoholic products as they seek to prioritise profits over people’s health. Our findings suggest that health warning labels on alcohol products highlighting harms are beneficial to public health and those featuring text and simple illustrations were the most promising,” Dr Brennan said.

“Alcohol in any amount is harmful to health, and there is no safe level of drinking. Health warning labels give consumers clear and accurate information about the risks of drinking at the point of consumption, helping them make an informed decision.”

Clare Hughes, Chair of the Cancer Council Nutrition and Physical Activity Committee, said the alcohol industry cannot be trusted to put the health of the community first.

“Alcohol is linked to seven types of cancer including breast, bowel, liver and throat, and increases the risk of chronic diseases like liver and heart disease, type 2 diabetes and stroke. Alcohol is high in energy and is a significant contributor to excess energy in the diets of Australians,” Ms Hughes said.

“The lack of clear labelling and the use of marketing claims on alcohol products makes it difficult for consumers to make an informed purchase when they shop at the supermarket, bottle shop or online.

“The introduction of mandatory pregnancy health warning labels has been a step in the right direction. These will appear on all Australian alcohol products by mid-2023.

“We are calling on the Australian Government to urgently introduce stronger regulations to ensure that alcohol labelling protects consumers and gives them basic information to make an informed purchase. This includes stronger messages highlighting cancer risks.”

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