Publication of alcohol labelling research report - Drinking in the Dark
Top health experts call for alcohol labelling overhaul as new research finds that the current system is failing consumers
Leading health experts and charities are calling for the UK and Scottish governments to take responsibility for mandating labelling on alcohol products as new research finds that the current system fails to provide consumers with adequate information to make healthy decisions.
Labels provide crucial information to consumers, yet the law currently only requires alcohol labels to show the strength of alcohol (ABV) and the container’s volume. Any other information - such as ingredients, nutritional information and health risks - is optional. This is in stark contrast to the labelling requirements for all other food and drink products, despite alcohol being a class 1 carcinogen. As it stands, the law requires more information to be displayed on a pint of milk than on a bottle of wine.
The Alcohol Health Alliance UK (AHA) examined labels on 424 alcohol products in shops across the UK to see whether labels provided the up-to-date Chief Medical Officers’ low-risk weekly guidelines and other essential information that would allow consumers to make informed choices about their purchases.
The research found that:
- More than 70% of labels did not include the drinking guidelines; over three years after they were updated and a month after the deadline the industry agreed with the Government.
- The industry-funded Portman Group styles itself as the alcohol industry’s “social responsibility body” and “leader in best practice” but their members were least likely to include the correct low-risk drinking guidelines: only 2% did so.
- More than half (56%) of labels included no nutritional information. 37% of labels listed only the calorie content of the container, and only 7% displayed full nutritional content.
- Nearly a quarter (24%) of labels surveyed contained misleading, out-of-date health information, such as the old UK drinking guidelines or drinking guidelines from other countries.
- Health information was often illegible, with the average height of the text displaying information about alcohol units measuring 2mm – well under the 3.5mm required to be easily readable.
In their 2018 Alcohol Framework the Scottish Government committed to consider pursuing mandatory approach to labelling in Scotland if alcohol producers did not include the low-risk drinking guidelines on products by the UK Government’s deadline of September 2019. We’re nearly a year on from this deadline and this research clearly demonstrates that the industry can’t be trusted to make these changes voluntarily.
A Canadian study released in May found that alcohol warning labels, like warnings on packets of cigarettes, are effective tools in helping drinkers make informed decisions. The study found consumers exposed to the labels were 10% more likely to know about the link between alcohol and cancer and three times more likely to be aware of the low-risk drinking guidelines.
Alison Douglas, Chief Executive of AHA member Alcohol Focus Scotland, said: “Alcohol producers continue to show a complete disregard for our right to know what is in our drinks and what the risks associated with alcohol consumption are. Their on-going failure to provide full and accurate information is simply unacceptable. We need reliable health information directly on bottles, cans and menus, where it can usefully inform our decisions. The public deserves better and industry has demonstrated that they won’t do this voluntarily. We have even seen new products come onto the market in recent months that don’t provide the Chief Medical Officers’ low risk guidelines three years on. UK government has consistently failed to regulate. It is now time for Scottish Government to use its powers to set out labelling requirements for alcoholic products in law.”
Professor Sir Ian Gilmore, Chair of the Alcohol Health Alliance UK, said: “Alcohol labelling in this country is woefully inadequate and not fit for purpose if we wish to build a healthier society. It is disappointing but telling that members of the Portman Group - the body purporting to promote “best practice” on labelling of alcohol products - are the least likely to display basic health information. It is time that health labelling is required for all products.
“The public must be granted the power to make informed decisions about their health by having access to prominent health warnings and information on ingredients, nutrition and alcohol content at the point of purchase. The industry’s reluctance to include this information on their products suggests profits are being put ahead of people’s health.”
Dr Richard Piper, Chief Executive at Alcohol Change UK, the charity which led on the research, said:
“Many of us enjoy alcohol, but we deserve to do so with the facts – and those facts are currently being concealed by out of date, incomplete alcohol labels. It’s clear that the ‘voluntary’ system of alcohol labelling regulation isn’t working when it’s possible for labels to contain information that’s four years out of date without any repercussions. It’s time for the Government to step up and set rules rather than suggestions – consumers deserve it.”
We looked at 424 containers (this included some duplicate products; 319 different products were examined in total) between 23 October and 30 October 2019. We covered 18 locations, including 10 supermarkets and one newsagent across London, the South East, Wales, the North East and Scotland. We collected data on every type of product, with beers and red wine being most represented. We included products from the top ten best-selling brands in the UK as well as including products from all Portman Group members.
For further information, please contact Rebecca Sibbett, Senior Communications Coordinator at Alcohol Focus Scotland on Rebecca.Sibbett@alcohol-focus-scotland.org.uk or phone 07519 121 782.
Alcohol Focus Scotland
Alcohol Focus Scotland (AFS) is the national charity working to prevent and reduce alcohol harm. We want to reduce the impact of alcohol on individuals, families, communities and Scotland as a whole, through the implementation of effective alcohol control policies and legislation. For more information, please visit: www.alcohol-focus-scotland.org.uk
About the Alcohol Health Alliance UK
The Alcohol Health Alliance UK (AHA) is a coalition of more than 50 health and alcohol organisations who share a common interest in reducing alcohol-related harm, and who campaign for evidence-based policies to reduce this harm. Members include medical royal colleges, charities, patient representatives and alcohol health campaigners. For more information, please visit: www.ahauk.org
About Alcohol Change UK
Alcohol Change UK works for a world free from alcohol harm. We fund, commission and share research; work to ensure more and better support and treatment; encourage better policy and regulation; shift drinking cultures through our campaigns; and work to change drinking behaviours by providing advice and information.
 Hobin, E., Schoueri-Mychasiw, N., Weerasinghe, A., Vallance, K., Hammond, D., Greenfield, T. K., ... & Stockwell, T. (2020). Effects of strengthening alcohol labels on attention, message processing, and perceived effectiveness: A quasi-experimental study in Yukon, Canada International Journal of Drug Policy, 77, 102666.