For consumers to make an informed choice, alcohol labels need to provide clear product and health information.

Despite alcohol’s significant health impact, there is poor public awareness of these risks:

  • 77% don't know the weekly drinking guidelines
  • 4 in 5 don't know how many units are in their drink
  • 3 in 4 don't know the calorie content of drinks
  • 43% don't know that alcohol causes cancer

Providing information via alcohol labels is a key means for people to access health information and advice at the point when they are choosing whether and what to purchase:

  • Health warnings on alcoholic drinks would increase awareness of the health risks associated with drinking.
  • Unit information and the low-risk drinking guidelines would help people track their alcohol consumption and increase awareness of the advice for regular drinkers to not exceed 14 units of alcohol a week to keep their health risks low
  • A warning not to drink when pregnant or trying to conceive would provide clarity to women around the dangers of alcohol in pregnancy, such as Foetal Alcohol Syndrome Disorders (FASD)
  • Displaying nutritional information would help us understand better how much of our calorie and sugar 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.

 

Voluntary labelling isn’t working

In the UK, alcohol is treated differently to other food and drink products, with no mandatory rules for labelling. Instead, alcohol producers decide what information to provide on their products, guided by the alcohol industry-funded Portman Group.

This reliance on the industry to provide information on a voluntary basis has failed the public, with alcohol labelling in the UK consistently found to be lacking. For example, in the Alcohol Health Alliance’s most recent review:

  • Just 3% of products displayed a health warning
  • 1 in 5 provided a full list of ingredients
  • 41% stated calorie content
  • 65% included the up-to-date Chief Medical Officers’ drinking guidelines

 

Mandatory alcohol labelling must be introduced

Governments across the UK have long recognised that information provided on alcohol products by producers is inadequate.

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.

In its 2018 Alcohol Framework, the Scottish Government committed to pursuing a mandatory approach for alcohol labelling in Scotland if industry did not deliver on their promises to make improvements. In 2020, the UK Government announced its intention to consult on alcohol calorie labelling on a four nations basis. Four years on, the consultation has yet to be published.

There is now more than enough evidence to take action on mandating alcohol labelling. Not only has the evidence on alcohol labelling been building over recent years, the learning from tobacco and food labelling can also be used to inform the development of effective health messaging on alcohol products. This would not only provide people with information on what is in their drinks, raising awareness of the health risks of alcohol consumption and the low risk drinking guidelines, but may also help to reduce consumption.

 

The public support mandatory labelling

The public support legally requiring certain information to be displayed on the labels of alcoholic drinks, with just 3% believing that no information should be legally required.

This includes:

  • 77% support for the number of units in a product
  • 57% support for a pregnancy warning
  • 56% support for nutritional information (such as calories or sugar)
  • 51% support for ingredients
  • 53% support for information on health conditions caused by alcohol such as cancer, liver disease and dependency

The survey was conducted by YouGov on behalf of Action on Smoking and Health, Feb-March 2024.

 

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The figures

24%
of Scots drink at hazardous or harmful levels (more than 14 units a week)
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