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Current alcohol labelling of little relevance to young adult drinkers
Current alcohol labelling is of little relevance to young adult drinkers in Scotland; visible, meaningful health information and warnings may help to inform the public about potential risks
by Daniel Jones, Institute of Social Marketing and Health, University of Stirling
The harmful use of alcohol is a significant public health issue globally, contributing to 3 million deaths each year. Scotland is no exception, generally experiencing the highest rates of alcohol-specific deaths in the UK over the last two decades.
As part of my PhD at the Institute for Social Marketing and Health, University of Stirling, I have focused on alcohol packaging as a communications tool, both from a marketing and public health perspective.
One of my studies, supported by Alcohol Focus Scotland, involved 50 current drinkers aged 18–35. It found that the information currently provided on labels is of little use to young adult drinkers, and that alcohol labelling has the potential to offer consumers a more informed choice before buying and drinking alcohol. Given the limited evidence in Scotland and elsewhere, I conducted focus groups to explore what consumers think about the information currently provided on alcohol packaging, and their views on a range of mocked-up health warning labels with messages on general health (‘Alcohol damages your health’), liver disease (‘Alcohol increases risk of liver disease’) and cancer (‘Alcohol causes cancer’). Here are five of the most interesting findings that emerged from the focus group discussions.
I’ve actually never noticed them
1. Virtually all of the participants said that the health information, messaging and warnings currently provided on alcohol packaging are unnoticeable, obscure and ineffective. Most of them were not aware of, or did not pay attention to, current alcohol labels, saying that the information is too small and positioned in ways that make it hard to find. Some of the participants believed that alcohol companies would not want clearer, more useful health-related information, messages or warnings on alcohol packaging, as it would be detrimental to sales and positive perceptions of drinking.
What is drinking responsibly? Is it not drinking a lot? Is it only drinking a couple of times a week? Is it drinking within your house? Is it drinking in a legalised environment?
2. Responsible drinking messages on packaging were seen as ambiguous and unhelpful, particularly the “please drink responsibly” message. Almost all of the participants reported that such messages do little to help consumers moderate their alcohol intake and do not have any real impact on behaviour, comparing them to similar messages seen in gambling advertisements. One participant suggested that alcohol companies use messages like “please enjoy responsibly” to frame drinking in a positive way.
I don’t think it matters but, if you are buying something and consuming something, you should see what’s in it; if you want to read that or not and if you want to take it on board is up to yourself
3. A few of the participants questioned why some information is not present on alcohol labels, and generally supported the inclusion of ingredients and nutritional information (e.g. calories) on labels. Some participants thought that this information would be important for people with health concerns and specific dietary requirements (e.g. allergies), and suggested that those on diets or in training would also find it useful to have such information available on the label.
Well it would surprise me by the fact that it’s not normally there. Which is a really good point that you brought up, because why is it on cigarettes when alcohol does as much damage?
4. Some of the participants questioned why tobacco, a similarly harmful product, has prominent warnings on packaging yet alcohol does not. While they were surprised to see such warnings on the mocked up alcohol products, the groups generally supported greater health information and messaging on labels, which included specific health warnings regarding liver disease and cancer. Several participants felt that prominent warnings would make alcohol products unsuitable gifts and look unattractive in the home, with some saying they would be more reluctant to bring such products to social gatherings. Furthermore, many of the participants believed that clear warnings on alcohol packaging could help to reduce the appeal of alcohol products and increase awareness of the potential risks, particularly for younger or potential drinkers.
Everybody knows somebody that’s suffered from cancer
5. Most people thought that, to be effective, health warnings should be prominent, visible, and relatable. Many participants said that large, specific health warnings with text and images on the front of packaging were the most engaging and would, potentially, be the most effective. The cancer warning was particularly relatable, with the participants generally finding the novel health warnings more engaging and useful than the information currently provided on alcohol packaging.
This research reveals how current alcohol labels are not viewed as useful by young adult drinkers, providing little information about what is in alcoholic drinks and how drinking might affect health. Clearer, more relevant health information, messages and warnings on packaging could help both drinkers and potential drinkers to make more informed decisions about the possible risks before buying and drinking alcohol. However, many of the participants displayed a level of suspicion and mistrust of alcohol companies, and contended that alcohol companies would not want salient health-messaging on alcohol packaging as it could be detrimental to sales and positive perceptions of drinking.
About the author: Daniel Jones is a PhD student at the Institute for Social Marketing and Health, University of Stirling. His PhD research focuses on alcohol packaging as a communications tool, both from a marketing and public health perspective. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @DanielJones126