Do alcohol health warning labels work?
Posted 17/05/2012 by Matthew Thomas
On 24 May the House of Representatives Social Policy and Legal Affairs Committee is to hold a roundtable with alcohol industry representatives, through which it will canvass their views on health warning labels on alcohol containers, including specific warnings for pregnant women. On 31 May, the Committee will hold a similar hearing with public health and alcohol and drug non-government organisations. The Committee is also currently conducting an inquiry into the incidence and prevention of foetal alcohol spectrum disorder.
The hearings are being held in a context in which the Government has recently committed to certain alcohol labelling reforms in response to the recommendations of the Independent Review of Food Labelling Law and Policy. The Government has in its response taken account of the fact that, last year, the alcohol industry began voluntarily introducing new consumer information messages on the labels of alcohol products sold in Australia.
Perhaps the key issue that is likely to be considered in the course of the hearings is the question of whether or not alcohol health warning labels are effective in reducing alcohol-related harm. This question is the subject of a new Parliamentary Library paper, Alcohol warning labels—do they work? The paper provides a brief summary of some of the research evidence on the effectiveness of alcohol warning labels and a succinct overview of the context for the Government’s proposed labelling reforms.
In short, the paper finds that, based on the research evidence, alcohol health warning labels may increase consumers’ awareness of the risks associated with excess alcohol consumption. However, this increased awareness does not necessarily result in behavioural changes in those groups that are at highest risk of experiencing alcohol-related harms.
If alcohol health warning labels are to have any chance in spurring positive changes in drinking behaviours, then the evidence indicates that the messages they convey need to meet two main criteria. Firstly, they need to be arresting in their presentation of health risks, similar to those messages included on tobacco labels. And, secondly, they need to be varied reasonably frequently in order to counter consumer complacency.
Arguably, the new consumer information messages to be included on alcohol products by the alcohol industry do not meet the first of these criteria. And, given that this is the case, the paper suggests that they are unlikely to be particularly successful in contributing to a reduction in alcohol-related harms.
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