Reducing harm caused by alcohol

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Drinks companies keeping consumers in dark about risky drinking

Multi-national alcohol companies are choosing to ignore advice from the Chief Medical Officers (CMOs) to display important health information on their products, a new study has found.

The result is that drinkers in Scotland are being kept in the dark about how to minimise their risks from a range of medical conditions, including seven different types of cancer.

The research, published today by the Alcohol Health Alliance UK (AHA), showed that fewer than 10% of the 320 alcohol products surveyed carry the current low-risk weekly drinking guideline of 14 units a week.

More than two and a half years after the current alcohol guidelines came into effect, most of the 320 products reviewed referred to out-of-date guidelines and carried no health warnings of specific illnesses or diseases. Among the products to carry old information were new drinks, launched after the publication of the current guidelines. 

None of the 24 products containing the current guidelines belonged to the global multi-national drinks companies.

The study shows how little progress has been made over the last year since a similar AHA review found only one product contained the correct weekly guideline.

Scotland’s Chief Medical Officer Dr Catherine Calderwood urged the alcohol industry to communicate the CMOs’ health advice on product labels as a priority.

Dr Calderwood said:

“People should be supported to make informed choices about their drinking and have a right to know about the harms associated with alcohol such as liver disease, heart disease and cancer. Providing information on labels is a crucial and effective way to give people health information and advice that informs their choices. Some businesses are taking a responsible approach; for example C & C Group, the company that produces Tennent’s. Others now need to follow their lead.”

Dr Calderwood said she will write to the Portman Group on behalf of the CMOs to raise the issue.

Yesterday Alison Douglas, chief executive of Alcohol Focus Scotland and a member of the Alcohol Health Alliance, attended the Diageo AGM to raise the issue directly with senior management and shareholders.

Ms Douglas said “It is notable that the global multi-national producers do not seem to have made any effort to update their labelling to communicate the current low-risk drinking guidelines, while some smaller independent producers have done so. The Alcohol Health Alliance surveyed more than 100 Diageo products and not one of them included the current guidelines of 14 units a week.

“Referring people to industry-funded websites is not good enough. We need reliable health information directly on bottles, cans and menus, where it can usefully inform our decisions. At the moment more information is required on a pint of milk than on a bottle of wine.  The public deserves better and industry clearly won’t do this voluntarily; it’s time for government to act.”

Professor Sir Ian Gilmore, liver doctor and chair of the AHA, said: “Once again we see that the alcohol industry cannot be trusted to provide the public with health information. The current system of self-regulation has clearly failed. The industry-funded Portman Group, which advises alcohol producers on labelling, no longer recommends its members include the Chief Medical Officers’ guidelines on labels.

“We all have the right to know what we are drinking and the fact that alcohol increases our risk of seven types of cancer, liver disease, heart disease and stroke. Few of us know and understand these risks or are aware of the CMOs’ advice. Alcohol companies should be required to display this information along with prominent health warnings, information on ingredients, nutrition and calories on alcohol labels. It’s clear that without government requiring alcohol producers to provide this information, consumers will continue to be kept in the dark.”

Spirit label with CMO guidelines

Royal College of Public Health label mock ups with current CMO guidelines.

Read the full report.