Introduce cigarette-style labelling for alcohol, says public health body

It should be ‘mandatory’ to include the government’s low-risk drinking guidelines of 14 units per week on alcohol labels, says the Royal Society for Public Health (RSPH), alongside calorie-content information and warnings about drink driving. Labels could also potentially feature ‘explicit cigarette-style warning of the link with health conditions such as bowel and breast cancer’ as well ‘traffic light’ colour coding, the organisation states.

The recommendations form part of a new report, Labelling the point, published in response to a perceived ‘alcohol health awareness vacuum’. Only ten per cent of people are aware of the links between alcohol and cancer, says RSPH, while just 16 per cent are aware of the government’s unit guidelines and only 20 per cent are able to correctly estimate the number of calories in a glass of wine.

Including information on calorie content per serving could result in a ten per cent swing in ‘consumer purchasing decisions from the highest alcohol drinks to the lowest’, across all main drink categories and socio-economic groups, the document claims.

The report is partly based on a survey of around 1,800 people originally commissioned in partnership with industry body the Portman Group. However, the Portman Group has since ‘moved to make alcohol labels even less informative to the public than they are at present’, says RSPH, by releasing updated guidelines to manufacturers that no longer include the government’s low-risk drinking limits. Unit information alone is ‘largely useless’ to most consumers unless shown in the context of the recommended weekly limits, stresses RSPH. The Portman Group’s updated guidance indicates that the body is ‘no longer serious about setting a challenge for industry to play their part in informing the public and protecting their health’, it adds.

‘Having a drink with friends or family is something many of us enjoy. However, the potential health consequences of alcohol consumption are more serious than many people realise,’ said RSPH chief executive Shirley Cramer.

‘If and when people choose to drink, they have the right to do so with full knowledge of both what their drink contains and the effects it could have. Consumer health information and warnings are now mandatory and readily available on most products from tobacco to food and soft drinks, but alcohol continues to lag behind. If we are to raise awareness and reduce alcohol harm, this must change.’

The Portman Group’s decision to ‘weaken’ their labelling recommendations showed that ‘alcohol producers wish to withhold information on alcohol and health from the public’, added Alcohol Health Alliance chair Professor Sir Ian Gilmore.

However, Portman Group chief executive John Timothy responded by saying that the original research co-funded with RSPH ‘found little public interest in a radical overhaul of drinks labelling, and strong opposition to cramming more information’ onto packaging. It showed that 86 per cent of consumers ‘only look at labels for factual information and branding’ and 80 per cent wanted to see ‘less cluttered’ labels. ‘When asked specifically about health, 70 per cent said the current approach was about right,’ he stated.

‘These findings support the approach taken by the industry in developing updated voluntary guidance which includes a whole section on how producers can display the CMO’s guidelines on labels,’ he continued. ‘To suggest otherwise is misrepresentative. The Portman Group remains committed to providing consumers with accurate and accessible health information.’

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