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: