Politics of alcohol warning labels: Australia and Canada

Over the past couple of weeks, there have been parallel but unrelated media discussions about alcohol warning labels in Australia and Canada.

Drinkwise Australia, a non-profit funded by the alcohol industry, issued a press release last week indicating that the liquor industry was voluntarily adopting warning labels on their products. (Drinkwise represents 80% of the liquor industry in Australia). The warnings, primarily aimed at teenagers and pregnant women, will include the following messages:

  • Kids and Alcohol Don’t Mix
  • Is Your Drinking Harming Yourself or Others?
  • It is Safest Not to Drink While Pregnant

In the case of alcohol and pregnancy, producers will also have the option to use a pictogram instead of text. (See Drinkwise Australia’s fact sheet “It is safest not to drink during pregnancy” here).

According to government statistics, the proportion of people in Australia drinking at high risk level has increased from 8.2 per cent in 1995 to 13.4 per cent in 2004-2005, when the last National Health Survey was conducted. The increase has been greater for women. See the news article Australia puts health warnings on alcohol bottles to battle entrenched drinking culture (The Associate Press, July 12, 2011) for more.

Earlier this year, the Australia government released a report advocating for alcohol labelling. In response, Lion Nathan, one of Australia’s biggest beer brands said that they would voluntarily add labels to their products. They are now receiving criticisms that this move is just a smokescreen and PR campaign and that the company is creating warning labels that aren’t really warning labels at all and trying to pre-empt tougher legislation down the road. See Criticism over alcohol labels ‘ironic’ – brewery (TVNZ, July 14,2011).

Meanwhile, back in June, the Winnipeg Free Press published an update on the state of alcohol warning labels in Canada (see Warning label ‘such a simple thing’, June 18, 2011). In Canada, some liquor companies add their own warning labels (e.g., the Wayne Gretzky Estates winery) and the Yukon requires labels. And because the U.S. Surgeon General began requiring warnings about drinking and pregnancy in 1989, US-bound bottles also carry warning messages.

The interesting thing about all these discussions is that the research to-date shows that alcohol warning labels with respect to pregnancy just increases knowledge and awareness of the risks of drinking during pregnancy and doesn’t have an impact on women’s behaviours (which just goes to show you that education isn’t much good without other supports and interventions). That said,  I don’t think that warning labels hurt and they do contribute to overall efforts to change drinking culture.

For more posts on alcohol warning labels, see:


3 thoughts on “Politics of alcohol warning labels: Australia and Canada

  1. I recall a head of Drinkwise turning up on alcohol sponsored and alcohol friendly football television show and opened his spiel with “Well, we all drink – don’t we!”, to a rapturous round of applause.
    Some 17% of the population don’t, and any organisation with a remit to minimise alcohol related harms would make it part of their standard pitch to normalise alcohol avoidance. You’ll never get a responsible pitch like that from Drinkwise.
    Nothing I’ve seen of them since has dissuaded me from that first impression.
    The aim of Drinkwise is to preserve insomuch as possible a drinking culture.
    Given the known list of cancers, illnesses and fetal abnormalities, accidents, injuries, violence and deaths associated with this drug of addiction, and given their form as understood to date, any liaison with any such funded and representative organisations of this “industry” ought to be carefully considered.
    One of the benefits of recognizing and demystifying alcohol as “just another drug” via setting and enforcing a maximum blood alcohol content for almost every social and work situation, enhanced and facilitated by the widespread use of BAC testing machines, is the provision of direct, plain speaking, and unambiguous warnings – at the point of sale.

    Motivated learning is the only learning that matters.
    For eg, a drinker, concerned by breaking a pedestrian 08 law, puts 2 dollars in the slot and checks his/her BAC level.
    Meanwhile, just within their field of vision, they see some graphic imagery portraying FASD damages and a message along the lines of “one drink before you miss your first period can do this… Alcohol Kills, Maims and Injures. Never encourage alcohol use by anyone.”

    Policies that actually and assertively change harmful behaviours are the only policies worth considering and worth investing in.

    Setting a pedestrian blood alcohol content limit – we recommend point 08 – as the maximum permissible in public, on footpath BAC level, means in part, a widespread installation of near blood test quality, BAC testing machines, which should be equipped with audio visual educational messages.

    On bottle warning messages are fine, so long as they don’t pull punches.
    Witness the Australian Government’s recently declared policy on tobacco packaging. On getting this through both our houses of parliament, all cigarettes will be packaged in a sickly olive green. No Big Tobacco logos etc. Nothing clashes with the hard hitting educational messages attached. The “industry” cannot seek to attach any image creation or cultural nonsense to the purchase of this product. It is presented to the public as what it actually is. A dangerous, deadly, addictive drug that is anti-social to its core made by companies increasingly recognised as anti-social to their core.

    This has become what we call here a bi-partisan policy, with the leader of the opposition, the alternative government, giving it his support.

    Further, in Victoria, Australia, where I write this, tobacco has to be sold without bunting or advertising in plain and closed white cabinets.
    ie, the idea is to kill off any and all point of sale MARKETING, of anything other than anti tobacco messages.

    Naturally, Big Tobacco are fighting dramatically hard with a combination advertising and legal campaign.

    The advertising campaign has failed. The Legal is to be tested.

    This approach, combined with a quiver full of other sensible policy arrows, such as pedestrian 08, a total ban on promotional advertising and marketing, plain packaging, point of sale educational messaging dominance over any last vestiges of Big Liquor promotion, point of sale BAC testing and education > these are some of the means by which this shocking drug of addiction can be battled and battled successfully.

    Only a wholesale minimisation of total alcohol consumed per person per year is a good enough result.

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