Reducing harm caused by alcohol


It’s time to tell us what’s in our drinks

The Scottish Government is considering taking control of alcohol labelling - and not a minute too soon writes Nicola Merrin, Senior Policy and Research Coordinator.

Just last month, the Portman Group (an alcohol industry membership body) announced that they are encouraging their members to display the current low-risk drinking guidelines on labels.  This has confused many of us, who have been expecting this to happen this very month – the UK Government said that the guidelines would be reflected on drinks from 1 September 2019.   Three years since the guidelines were updated, this newest commitment is too little, too late.  Overall, the government’s reliance on voluntary agreements with the industry has failed: more information is found on a pint of milk than a bottle of vodka.  Now is the time to mandate alcohol labelling, rejecting industry promises that aim to further delay action.      

Providing information via labels is a key way for people to access health information and advice at the point of sale.  Historically government and the alcohol industry have jointly decided on voluntary agreement arrangements, which have focussed on the provision of unit content, drinking guidelines and pregnancy warnings.   However, the result of the first agreement, made in 2007, was that only 10% of products displayed this information.  The industry also failed to meet the terms of the next agreement,  part of the 2011 Public Health Responsibility Deal, for 80% of products to carry this same information.[i]  Since the change of government in 2015, no official agreement has been in place with the industry as to what should be on alcohol labels, at least not one that has been made public. 

You’ll find the alcohol industry’s current voluntary commitment to labelling within the Portman Group’s alcohol labelling guidance.  However, this only applies to members of the industry body, with no enforcement efforts for members who don’t follow it.  The current guidance, produced in 2017 following the update of the low-risk drinking guidelines, says labels should provide unit content, a pregnancy warning, and signposting to the Drinkaware website.

Units are a simple way of expressing how much pure alcohol is in a drink, and help us keep track of our drinking.  Although almost all of us have heard of measuring alcohol in units, almost three-quarters (72%) of us are unable to identify how many units are in standard measures of beers, wine or spirits.  But without a guide as to how many units would be risky to our health, unit information on its own doesn’t really mean much.  The top UK doctors (Chief Medical Officers) publish advice on how we can keep risks from drinking alcohol low, which includes the recommendation that drinkers shouldn’t regularly exceed 14 units a week.  If you expected such key information to be stated on the drinks we buy, you’d be disappointed – in fact, the Portman Group guidance actively removed the drinking guidelines from its list of required elements in 2017.  This decision had a significant impact: only 7.5% of products reviewed in 2018 displayed the current guidelines, and to add to our confusion, two thirds of products provided advice that had been out-of-date for over two years.  It’s no surprise then that only 17% of us know what the guidelines are.

You also won’t find much on a label to suggest that alcohol can be dangerous to your health.  Although drinking is associated with over 200 conditions and diseases (e.g. cancer, heart disease, fertility problems, stroke and mental health issues), instead of providing a health warning on labels, the Portman Group guidance states that consumers should be signposted to the Drinkaware website.  First of all, this assumes that everyone has access to the internet. Secondly, how many of us would make the effort to go online to look for health information on an alcohol product before we buy it? Evidence from Australia suggests that the answer is not many (7.5%).  Another, more concerning, point is whether or not information on industry-funded websites can be trusted, with Drinkaware having been found to downplay the link between alcohol and cancer.  Such withholding of health information from consumers will do nothing to tackle our low levels of knowledge around how drinking can affect our health - when asked which health conditions people think can result from drinking alcohol, fewer than half of the people surveyed mentioned cancer, around a third mentioned heart problems, and only 10% thought it was associated with kidney damage.[ii] 

It’s not only health warnings and drinking guidelines that are missing from labels.  There’s no suggestion in the Portman Group guidance that labels should provide calorie content or ingredient listings (in fact, ingredients aren’t mentioned at all).  Providing the calorie content would help us understand better how much of our calorie intake comes from alcohol (which is often quite significant), and would be particularly helpful for those of us who are watching our weight.  Checking a list of ingredients is the only way that people with more uncommon allergies can know whether it’s safe for them to consume a drink or not. 

And what about how the information is presented?  We know from research in France, where health warnings on alcohol products have been in place since 2007, that the size and location of health information can affect how visible and noticeable they are.[iii]  Voluntary commitments to make sure that information is presented in a clear way have been consistently inadequate, including issues with font and logo size, and differences found between products, such as much smaller pregnancy warnings on products that are drunk more by women than by men.[iv]  There’s no evidence that lessons have been learned - the Portman Group guidance still declines to specify important presentational elements, such as font or logo size. 

 What now?

The Scottish Government first said it would prefer alcohol labelling to be mandated in its 2009 alcohol strategy but recognised that a UK-wide approach may be preferable.  The lack of progress in the ten years since shows us the need to move away from unambitious and unsuccessful voluntary agreements.  The recent announcement that the industry will put the current guidelines on labels is too little, too late.  The time is right for Scotland to follow in the footsteps of other countries that have taken action on alcohol labelling, such as Ireland, which passed legislation to mandate the provision of health warnings and calorie information on labels last year. 

We’re pleased that the Scottish Government will consider taking control if industry action isn’t good enough.[v] AFS is currently reviewing the evidence on alcohol labelling in order to inform our recommendations on what the next steps for labelling in Scotland should be. 

9 September 2019

[i] Petticrew, M., Douglas, N., Knai, C., Durand, M. A., Eastmure, E., & Mays, N. (2016). Health information on alcoholic beverage containers: has the alcohol industry's pledge in England to improve labelling been met?. Addiction, 111(1), 51-55.

[ii] YouGov polling conducted in November 2018 for Alcohol Focus Scotland with over 1,000 adults. 

[iii] Dossou, G., Gallopel-Morvan, K., & Diouf, J. (2017). The effectiveness of current french health warnings displayed on alcohol advertisements and alcoholic beverages. European Journal of Public Health, 27(4), 699-704.

[iv] Petticrew, M., Douglas, N., Knai, C., Durand, M. A., Eastmure, E., & Mays, N. (2016). Health information on alcoholic beverage containers: has the alcohol industry's pledge in England to improve labelling been met?. Addiction, 111(1), 51-55.