Should Canadians be warned about the risks of alcohol use?

It is well known that alcohol is associated with road crashes, injuries, and cirrhosis of the liver. Less well-known is that alcohol is causally linked to at least eight different types of cancer including mouth, pharynx, larynx, esophagus, liver, breast, colon and rectum, and is among the top three leading risk factors for death from cancer worldwide. In fact, recent surveys suggest that nearly 70% of Canadians are unaware of the link between alcohol and cancer. How can Canadians make informed decisions about their alcohol use if they are unaware of the risks?

Warning labels are mandatory for many other consumer products in Canada, including vitamins, energy drinks and tobacco, to name a few, but alcohol packaging carries no consumer health warnings. The Yukon and the Northwest Territories are the only exception; they manually add warning labels about the risk of drinking during pregnancy at the point of sale. There are at least two dozen countries worldwide that also require warning labels, such as the US, which requires labels on every alcohol product sold, including those manufactured in other countries such as Canada.

The idea of warning labels has met with resistance from both the federal government and the alcohol industry who argue that there is no proof the labels help and so no reason to add them. But is that true? Warning labels on tobacco products have been part of a package of measures that have contributed to dramatic declines in smoking in recent decades. They may also help create a climate of informed opinion that can facilitate more directly effective prevention policies. The Canadian government has provided global leadership in efforts to force tobacco companies to put warning labels on their packaging. Why is alcohol treated differently when we are well aware of huge health and social costs associated with its consumption?

Even if we choose not to heed alcohol warning labels, isn’t it still our right to know about the potential risks of consuming alcohol and how to reduce them? If the government is at least partially responsible for the distribution of alcohol, should it not be their responsibility to make sure that consumers are aware of the risks?

Should alcohol beverage containers in BC have warning labels that inform consumers about the health and safety risks of alcohol consumption?

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Author: Kara Thompson

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6 thoughts on “Should Canadians be warned about the risks of alcohol use?

  1. Alcohol enjoys a highly privileged position in our society. It is perhaps the only commodity sold for mass consumption that can kill that does not have a warning on it. I think its a very valid question: Why doesn’t alcohol carry warning labels clearly spelling out the many harms associated with risky drinking?

  2. There are a few things in this post that I would like to comment on. It was alarming to me at first that “nearly 70% of Canadians are unaware of the link between alcohol and cancer.” On second thought, it’s really not that surprising – how would we know about this risk? We really haven’t been given an opportunity to learn about such alcohol related harms.

    Think about it: when was the last time you saw any public health campaign about alcohol-related harms, other than drinking and driving or drinking during pregnancy? There are no TV commercials, no magazine ads, and very few newspaper articles that deliver such information. Some may argue that it’s the responsibility of our physicians to discuss these harms. That is assuming that folks are being a.) up front about their drinking, b.) factual about the amount of alcohol they consume, and c.) seeing their PCP regularly. Warning labels on alcohol products are a sure-thing: every consumer has the opportunity to see them each and every time they drink. To me, it seems like a targeted, cost effective opportunity to promote health in the province. So what’s the problem here?

    You mention that there is not enough evidence that warning labels work. Why can’t our government look at evidence from the two dozen other countries who use warning labels on their products? Has the evidence on its effectiveness been mixed? Well then maybe we can look at other messaging tactics in our own province. Tobacco warning labels have been extremely successful, like you mentioned. As have pregnancy and drinking labels, and drinking and driving campaigns. If that’s the case, is it possible that consumers will be desensitized to further public health information on alcohol products? Has that policy window closed – have we missed the boat?

    In fact, the topic of health warnings on alcohol product was a political point of discussion in Ottawa in 2007, but nothing came into fruition. What happened? Perhaps we as British Columbians can look to this example and learn some lessons about involving the government in the alcohol industry and the power it can have over public health sometimes.

    This brings me to my next point. Your last paragraph really poses the question of if the government should be responsible for making consumers aware of the risks. And I think absolutely yes. In fact, it is dangerous to put the industry in charge. Even having the option of involving the industry in health warnings could undermine the point of health warnings altogether. Quite frankly, liquor companies do not want consumers to stop drinking – it would be bad for business. They can be very clever in putting together phrases that look like warnings but actually are not health warnings at all. We as health promoters have to be careful getting into bed with the industry. That said, if we meet strong opposition, is there a way that liquor companies could add health warnings to be positive branding?

    If we do go forward with health warnings on alcohol products, effective messaging may be more difficult than we think. For instance, health messaging around tobacco is simply “don’t smoke.” Similarly, the messaging “if you drink, don’t drive” provides simple black-and-white reasoning to consumers. On the other hand, health messaging around alcohol related harms is, unfortunately, around vague limits and guidelines that are often misunderstood or skewed by consumers. Rather than saying “don’t drink, ever” (100% protection from alcohol related harms) we are telling consumers to say within sometimes unclear gender-specific guidelines.

    Lastly, (and perhaps idealistically) I can’t help but question whether health warnings will in fact have the impact we wish they would have. By placing a responsibility on the consumer to read labels, are we shifting a social responsibility to educate the individual rather than addressing alcohol consumption on the whole?

  3. I agree that alcohol should have warning labels, I wonder what impact the warning labels on tobacco has been? Has there been a decrease in tobacco sales due to the warnings? I think alcohol warnings should start as early as elementary school and carried throughout the school years. Talk to kids about the dangers on an ongoing basic before they begin consuming alcohol. At middle and high school there should be ongoing programs, awareness (posters, emails, conversations with teachers etc.) frequently throughout the year (not just once). Keeping the education and information top of mind with kids. Then incorporate warning labels on alcohol products to again reinforce what kids have learned throughout their school years. I think most people are aware of some of the dangers of alcohol consumption – not all but I think many have a good general idea. Consistent education and awareness is key to keeping the public informed and educated.

    • I agree with you Sherry, educating in school years is an excellent idea. Do you think we should stop there though? Or educate youth on the dangers of drugs too? Perhaps implement a substance health class, much like a sexual health class…

  4. Very interesting article / comments surrounding alcohol consumption and product labeling. I believe the best way to prevent the over consumption of alcohol is through education of the consumer. This would involve a number of people or groups, starting with parents who must lead by example, discussing the risks of alcohol consumption with their children is an important first step. The education system in BC requires a mandatory program that will teach young adults how to live a healthy lifestyle, this would include information outlining the health risks associated with alcohol, tobacco, & drug (prescription & non prescription) use. Governments can easily regulate industry to have product warning labels attached however I’m not convinced that this alone will reduce the consumption of alcohol in Canada. Many product labels are inconspicuous in nature and consumers generally are uninterested in taking the time to read them.
    All of society & governments need to play a role in reducing alcohol consumption, no single faceted campaign will be successful.

    I think back to a defining moment in my childhood which motivated me never to smoke cigarettes. It was a TV commercial outlining the the health risks of tobacco use, the lady describing these risks was being treated for throat cancer and could only breath through a plastic insert in her esophagus. The patient was in her mid forties, however she looked about 80. At the end of the commercial she proceeds to take a drag on a cigarette through the insert and then coughs violently from the smoke. As a young child this graphic display of the side effects of smoking was all I needed to ensure a nonsmoking lifestyle.

  5. I agree 100% with labels and education at the school level. A very good place to start is to have the label say that alcohol is addictive. I am a seasoned speaker and one of my most passionate topics is on Drug and Alcohol Addiction PREVENTION. Barbara 250-383-9087 (Out of Office Nov 11th to Dec 13th)

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