The current voluntary labelling of health warnings on alcoholic drinks isn’t working suggests a group of medical students after a study finding ‘pea-sized’ and vague label warnings.

The research team examined the labels on 59 common beers, and the cheapest wine and ready-to-drink (RTD) beverages and found a total absence of any labels on some drinks, on others there were “pea-size” pregnancy warnings, and where there were warnings there was a lack of detail – with only 19 per cent warning about drink-driving.

In the wake of their findings, published today in the international journal Drug and Alcohol Review, the student researchers suggested that warning labelling needed to be mandatory, not voluntary, and that there should be standardised messages outlining major alcohol-related risks including pregnancy, drink-driving and cancer.

A group of fourth-year medical students, led by Georges Tinawi and Tessa Gray, at the University of Otago, Wellington carried out the research.

The team found striking inconsistencies and a lot of variation between the warnings included on labels, including while most (80%) had pregnancy-related warnings these were found most consistently on beer which is most commonly marketed at men.

“Only 19 per cent of drinks across the range had any warning regarding drink-driving, which is concerning given the persistent and significant role of alcohol in fatalities and injuries on New Zealand roads” says lead author Tinawi.

The researchers found that on average, warning labels had a cross-sectional area similar to that of a pea and warnings tended to occupy well under one per cent of the total surface area available on the container.

Industry-led messages such as “Cheers!” or “Enjoy responsibly” were also found on around three quarters of beverages (73 per cent).

“These messages are ambiguous from a health perspective and could even encourage further drinking,” says Mr Tinawi.

The researchers’ compared the evidenced-based findings of what makes a warning label effective (large size, readable text, a clear message) and what was on the 59 bottles, cans and other container surfaces noted that “there is a discrepancy between what we know works, and what is actually on the container surface”.

“It was clear that marketing material dominates what is on the alcohol container and there is little attention paid to consumers’ right to know the health risks of the product,” said  Gray, another of tthe researchers.

In New Zealand, warning labels on alcohol are voluntary, in contrast to regulated mandatory labelling seen elsewhere; for example in the EU, Canada, and the USA. Some of these warnings are many times larger than the New Zealand equivalents. The voluntary alcohol labels are also in striking contrast to the large pictorial warnings now featured on all tobacco packaging sold in this country.

The researchers believe that the size and design of the alcohol warnings does not reflect the evidence that the total health harm from alcohol is similar to that caused by tobacco.

The authors are calling for mandatory standardised labelling in New Zealand to avoid the inconsistencies identified in the study, and to also minimise attempts by the manufacturers to obscure health warnings.

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