From the Journals

Alcohol warning labels need updates to reflect harms: NEJM



Warning labels on alcoholic products need to be updated to spell out details of potential harm in order to make them more effective, two U.S. researchers have said.

The current labeling, which has not changed for 30 years, focuses on risks during pregnancy and with operating machinery and includes a vague statement that alcohol “may cause health problems.”

This is “so understated that it borders on being misleading,” the two researchers argued.

The science related to the use of alcohol has moved on, and there is now firm evidence of harm. Alcohol has been classified by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) as a group 1 carcinogen and has been linked to an increased risk of many types of cancer. Drinking alcohol has also been linked to a wide range of other diseases, from liver disease to pancreatitis to some types of heart disease, the authors noted.

Yet the general public is mostly unaware of the most serious health risks that are associated with alcohol consumption, they pointed out.

“We believe Americans deserve the opportunity to make well-informed decisions about their alcohol consumption,” said Anna H. Grummon, PhD, of the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health, Boston, and Marissa G. Hall, PhD, of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

“Designing and adopting new alcohol warning labels should therefore be a research and policy priority,” they added.

The two researchers set out their arguments in a perspective article published in The New England Journal of Medicine.

“Alcohol consumption and its associated harms are reaching a crisis point in the United States,” they pointed out.

It now accounts for more than 140,000 deaths per year in the United States, according to the latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The COVID-19 pandemic has made the problem even worse – there was a 25% increase in alcohol-related deaths during 2020.

New, well-designed warning labels on alcohol is a common sense strategy for providing consumers with information and reducing the burden of alcohol-related harm, the authors suggested.

Warning Labels Prominently Displayed

Warning labels are most effective when they are prominently displayed, when they include pictures of some type, and when the messages alternate so as to avoid any one message from becoming “stale,” the authors noted. This approach has worked well with cigarette packs. This type of warning has increased smoking quit rates in comparison with smaller, side-of-pack, text-only warning labels.

There is some evidence that this type of labeling can be effective for alcohol. When large, pictorial warnings about cancer risk were temporarily added to the front of alcohol containers in some stores in Yukon, Canada, alcohol sales declined by 6%-10%, they pointed out.

However, pressure from the alcohol industry led to changes in the Yukon project, and while a general health warning remains, the label about increased cancer risk was removed.

The alcohol industry has tried to suppress efforts to educate the public, and this has created problems in conveying health information to consumers, the authors noted. The industry spends more than $1 billion each year to market its products in the United States.

The authors caution that without government intervention, the alcohol industry has little incentive to communicate the risks.

Some companies even link their products to health campaigns, such as selling pink ribbon–themed alcoholic drinks during October to promote their efforts to raise funds for breast cancer research, despite compelling evidence linking alcohol to an increased risk of breast cancer.


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