AHA calls for alcohol labelling overhaul as new research finds current system fails consumers

26 August 2020

Leading health experts and charities are calling for the government to take responsibility for labelling on alcohol products as new research finds that the current system fails to provide consumers with adequate information to make healthy decisions about their purchases.

Labels provide crucial information to consumers, yet the law only requires alcohol labels to show the strength of alcohol (ABV) and the container’s volume. Any other information – such as ingredients, nutritional information and health risks – is optional. This is in stark contrast to the labelling requirements for all other food and drink products, despite alcohol being a class 1 carcinogen. As it stands, the law requires more information to be displayed on a pint of milk than on a bottle of wine.

The alcohol industry claim that self-regulation is working and agreed to update labels to display the Chief Medical Officers’ (CMO) weekly guideline – no more than 14 units of alcohol – by September 2019.

The Alcohol Health Alliance UK (AHA) examined labels on 424 alcohol products in shops across the UK to see whether labels provided the up-to-date CMO weekly guideline and other essential information that would allow consumers to make informed choices about their purchases.

The research, led by charity Alcohol Change UK found that:

  • More than 70% of labels did not include the drinking guidelines; over three years after they were updated and after the deadline the industry agreed with the Government.
  • The industry-funded Portman Group styles itself as the alcohol industry’s “social responsibility body” and “leader in best practice” but their members were least likely to include the correct low-risk drinking guidelines: just 2% did so.
  • More than half (56%) of labels included no nutritional information. 37% of labels listed only the calorie content of the container, and just 7% displayed a full nutritional information table.
  • Nearly a quarter (24%) of labels surveyed contained misleading, out-of-date health information, such as the old UK drinking guidelines or drinking guidelines from other countries.
  • Health information was often illegible, with the average height of the text displaying information about alcohol units measuring 2mm – well under the 3.5mm required to be easily readable.

A Canadian study released in May found that alcohol warning labels, like warnings on packets of cigarettes, are effective tools in helping drinkers make informed decisions. The study found consumers exposed to the labels were 10% more likely to know about the link between alcohol and cancer and three times more likely to be aware of the low-risk drinking guidelines.[1]

Professor Sir Ian Gilmore, Chair of the Alcohol Health Alliance UK, said:

“Alcohol labelling in this country is woefully inadequate and not fit for purpose if we wish to build a healthier society. It is disappointing but telling that members of the Portman Group – the body purporting to promote “best practice” on labelling of alcohol products – are the least likely to display basic health information. It is time that health labelling is required for all products.

“The public must be granted the power to make informed decisions about their health by having access to prominent health warnings, information on ingredients, nutrition and alcohol content at the point of purchase. The industry’s reluctance to include this information on their products suggests profits are being put ahead of people’s health.”

Dr Richard Piper, Chief Executive at Alcohol Change UK, said:

“As it stands, there’s more information on a pint of milk than a bottle of wine. Both common sense and the evidence tell us that is absurd. Many of us enjoy alcohol, but we deserve to do so with the facts – and those facts are currently being concealed by out of date, incomplete alcohol labels. It’s clear that the ‘voluntary’ system of alcohol labelling regulation isn’t working when it’s possible for labels to contain information that’s four years out of date without any repercussions. It’s time for the Government to step up and set rules rather than suggestions – consumers deserve it.”

[1] Hobin, E., Schoueri-Mychasiw, N., Weerasinghe, A., Vallance, K., Hammond, D., Greenfield, T. K., … & Stockwell, T. (2020). Effects of strengthening alcohol labels on attention, message processing, and perceived effectiveness: A quasi-experimental study in Yukon, Canada International Journal of Drug Policy, 77, 102666.