Royal Society of Public Health proposes new labelling scheme to tackle alcohol health awareness vacuum

Posted on: 26th January 2018
  • Alcohol industry urged to reverse recent changes that put British drinkers even more in the dark
  • UK could use Brexit as an opportunity to fix labels – or risk being left behind imminent EU improvements
  • New research indicates front label calorie content could stimulate 10% swing to lower alcohol drinks

As Dry January draws to a close, the Royal Society for Public Health (RSPH) is today (26 January 2018) proposing a new approach to the way alcoholic drinks are labelled in the UK, in response to what it calls an “alcohol health awareness vacuum”. With less than one in six people (16%) aware of the Government’s low-risk alcohol guidelines, only one in 10 aware of the link between alcohol and cancer, and 80% unable to correctly estimate the calories in a glass of wine, action is needed to raise public understanding of the effects of alcohol on health.

The RSPH report – Labelling the Point – published today highlights the contribution that could be made by better alcohol labelling, and recommends a best practice labelling scheme that could help raise awareness and reduce harm. The proposed scheme includes:

  • Mandatory inclusion of the Government’s low-risk drinking guidelines of no more than 14 units a week, potentially including an explicit cigarette-style warning of the link with health conditions such as bowel and breast cancer. It is also suggested that traffic light colour coding could help drinkers make use of unit information in the context of the guidelines.
  • A drink drive warning on the front label – RSPH’s research indicates explicit warnings such as these are especially prioritised by young drinkers and more deprived socio-economic groups.
  • Calorie content per container or per serve on the front label – RSPH’s research indicates this could result in an almost 10% swing in consumer purchasing decisions from the highest alcohol drinks to the lowest, within all main drink categories (beers, wines, spirits) and across all socio-economic groups. The effect is particularly pronounced among young (18-24) drinkers, who could switch purchases from high to low alcohol drinks by as much as 20%.

The report’s recommendations are informed by research, including a representative survey of almost 1,800 UK adults, originally commissioned in partnership with the Portman Group, the alcohol industry responsibility body. However, the Portman Group has since moved to make alcohol labels even less informative to the public than they are at present, by releasing new guidance to manufacturers in September 2017 that no longer includes the Government’s low-risk drinking guidelines as a required element. This is in spite of RSPH’s new research clearly finding that alcohol unit information is largely useless to many people unless contextualized by the Government’s guidelines. RSPH is concerned that this signals that the Portman Group is no longer serious about setting a challenge for industry to play their part in informing the public and protecting their health.

Meanwhile, a deadline set by the EU Commission for manufacturers to bring forward proposals for the self-regulated provision, at European level, of calorie labelling is set to expire in March 2018. Depending on the eventual shape of the UK’s proposed exit from the EU, Britain may find itself left behind continental labelling advances – unless it manages to use Brexit as an opportunity to implement a best practice scheme faster and more efficiently.

Shirley Cramer CBE, Chief Executive of RSPH, said: “Having a drink with friends or family is something many of us enjoy. However, the potential health consequences of alcohol consumption are more serious than many people realise. If and when people choose to drink, they have the right to do so with full knowledge of both what their drink contains and the effects it could have. Consumer health information and warnings are now mandatory and readily available on most products from tobacco to food and soft drinks, but alcohol continues to lag behind. If we are to raise awareness and reduce alcohol harm, this must change.

 “Our research demonstrates the potential contribution better labelling could make to a healthier drinking culture, especially for younger drinkers and those from more deprived backgrounds who value clear health information the most. As Britain exits the EU, we ask that any additional regulatory freedom be used to strengthen that contribution – not to diminish it.”

Welcoming the report, Professor Sir Ian Gilmore, Chair of the Alcohol Health Alliance (AHA), said: “The decision last year by the Portman Group to weaken their recommendations on what should appear on alcohol labels clearly showed that alcohol producers wish to withhold information on alcohol and health from the public.

 “Their decision not to endorse the findings of this report is yet more evidence that producers cannot be relied upon to communicate the risks linked with alcohol. It is clear from this research that the public want labels to include the drinking guidelines, and we know from our own research that 81% of the public want to see the guidelines on labels. Producers should accept this.

 “Alcohol is linked with over 200 disease and injury conditions, including heart disease, liver disease and at least seven types of cancer. We all have a right to know the drinking guidelines, along with the risks associated with alcohol, so that we are empowered to make informed choices about our drinking. With alcohol producers unwilling to communicate this information, the government should now introduce mandatory labelling of all alcohol products, with labels clearly communicating the guidelines and health risks.”

Read the full Labelling the Point report - #LabellingThePoint.