A new world-wide study has found that large alcohol labelling using negative health warnings similar to that used on cigarette packets could help people change their drinking habits.
Researchers are now calling for clear health warnings on all alcohol labels to be made mandatory instead of voluntary to help people make informed choices.
One million Scots are regularly drinking too much, putting themselves at increased risk of liver disease, cancer, stroke and mental health problems but researchers say that given knowledge of the direct health effects of alcohol remains so low, information on labels could be key to increasing understanding of these risks.
This latest research was led by Glasgow Caledonian University Research Fellow Dr Elena Dimova along with co-author Danielle Mitchell, Research Assistant at the University of Stirling’s Institute for Social Marketing and Health. The research was funded by Alcohol Focus Scotland (AFS), a national charity working to prevent and reduce alcohol-related harm.
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Researchers analysed 71 different research studies published around the world and identified several ways in which alcohol warning labels could be used to effectively raise awareness of alcohol-related harms and reduce consumption.
These findings will be key to informing the Scottish Government’s decision making on labelling and provide evidence to the UK Government’s consultation expected later this summer.
• The use of large, colourful labels on the front of alcohol products increases label visibility and message salience
• Health warnings that focus on the short-term alcohol-related risks and link alcohol to specific diseases, such as cancer, are more likely to raise awareness of the harms of drinking and prompt people to consider drinking less
• Explicit, negatively framed statements, especially statements that contain the phrase ‘health warning’, might motivate people to drink less
Dr Dimova, from the Substance Use Research Group in GCU’s Research Centre for Health (ReaCH), said: “Alcohol labels provide a high reach and direct opportunity to help people make informed decisions about what they purchase and consume, in addition to increasing awareness and knowledge of alcohol related harms.
“There is a need to introduce mandatory information for alcohol labels, including health warnings covering a range of health harms caused by alcohol consumption and nutritional information. In doing so, it recognises the consumers’ right to be fully informed at the point of consumption.”
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In the UK, alcohol labelling is based on voluntary agreements between the government and the alcohol industry. Alcohol labels are expected to include information on units, the Chief Medical Officer’s low risk drinking guidelines and advice on drinking during pregnancy, however, these are not mandatory or regulated.
Dr Dimova added: “Experimental research shows alcohol labels are effective in influencing consumers’ behaviour but little is known whether findings are applicable to real world settings.
“Recent real-world studies in Canada show that carefully designed labels can increase people’s awareness of drinking guidelines and alcohol-related harm, and lead to a decrease in the population’s alcohol consumption.”
Alison Douglas, chief executive of Alcohol Focus Scotland, said: “It can’t be right that there is more information required by law on a pint of milk than a bottle of wine.
“Why should alcohol – a product linked to 10 deaths a day in Scotland – continues to be exempt from statutory requirements that apply to all other food and drink?
“We need reliable health information directly on bottles and cans, where it can usefully inform our decisions. Better alcohol labelling would allow people to make informed decisions about the products they purchase and drink.
“To be effective this information needs to be visible and presented in a clear way. People both want and deserve to know what is in their drinks and industry has demonstrated that they won’t do this voluntarily.”
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The aim of the review was to understand what impact health messaging and product information on alcohol labels has on consumer attention, comprehension, recall, judgments and behaviour in relation to alcohol use.
Ms Mitchell, who recently completed her PhD at the University of Stirling’s Institute for Social Marketing and Health, said: “We wanted to find out how effective alcohol labelling is in increasing people’s attention to labels, understanding and recall of information on labels, and prompting people to think about and change their drinking behaviour.
“We also wanted to find out what makes an alcohol label effective to inform future labelling policies.”