The Arguments For and Against Alcohol Warning Labels

A new survey worked out which kind of warnings we respond best to, depending on our age.
Illustration: Jack Hamilton 

Alcohol is entrenched in British culture. From monks brewing mead to men who own at least four beard oils crafting beer that tastes like a week-old drip tray, it's been made and drunk here for millennia, and is a key component of our national identity.

Sadly, many Brits like booze much too much, and statistics regarding its abuse are galling: 26,000 people die from alcohol-related causes in the UK each year, while deaths from liver disease have grown by 450 percent in the last three decades. In 2014-15, 1.1 million hospital admissions were related to alcohol, whether they had to do with cirrhosis of the liver or your friend breaking his ankle while trying to proving he's Peckham's greatest new parkour artist.


Education and knowledge is paramount, so, a couple of weeks ago, the Global Drug Survey (GDS) released details of the biggest ever survey about alcohol labelling in this country. It found that labelling alcohol with warnings regarding its myriad health dangers could help almost half of the survey's participants think about drinking less alcohol.

So is labelling a silver bullet for the UK's liquor problems, and how will it target the next generation of drinkers?

Photo: Chloe Orefice

"People are often optimistic abut their susceptibility to health outcomes in all walks of life," says Dr Emma Davies, senior lecturer in psychology at Oxford Brookes and a member of the GDS Expert Advisory Group. "We call it 'unrealistic optimism': when people have a bias towards themselves."

Therefore, the key to labelling's effectiveness is to amplify a message individual drinkers can personally relate to, which drips some jarring new information in their ear. Rather than simply trying a label reading, "Drinking too much might give you liver disease", Global Drug Survey trialled labels based around seven different themes: drinking less reducing the risk of seven cancer types; alcohol increasing the risk of violence and abuse; alcohol's high calorific content; heart disease among heavy users; heavy drinkers reducing their chance of liver disease by cutting down a small amount; most people receiving little or no health benefits from drinking alcohol; and experts recommending taking two days off a week to control drinking.


The most potent message – unsurprisingly, in a world where the majority of us have lost a friend or family member to The Big C – was "Drinking less reduces your risk of seven types of cancer". Twenty-two percent of survey participants said this would make them think about drinking less, while 26 percent said it might. More surprising was the fact that 65.5 percent of females under 25 and 58.7 percent of males under 25 said this information was news to them.

"With young people, you have to think about things that are going to happen sooner," says Davies. "Older people tend to react to those longer-term issues." So rather than trying to target Generation Z-ers with projections of bad livers and dodgy hearts, it's likely they'll react to messaging related to alcohol's short-term effects, like its high calorie content (a burger and fries' worth in six small beers or one bottle of wine, FYI), or maybe even the likelihood of it killing your hard-on at inopportune times.

Deborah Arnott agrees. Arnott is the Chief Executive of Action Smoking on Health (ASH), a campaigning public health charity working to eliminate the harm caused by tobacco. Since joining ASH in 2002, Arnott has overseen the evolution of tobacco messaging to how it is today: hard-hitting health warnings under pictures of death and illness, printed on standardised, sludgy browny-green packaging designed to make it as appealing as a night on the ward.


"For younger people, the idea that you’re going to die slightly early doesn’t really matter," she says. |The idea that you’re going to be unable to do the things you enjoy doing is much more challenging. Messages around impotence and fertility are both key for us, and the effect smoking has on the skin."

Photo: Jake Smallwood

Smoking rates in this country have been gradually falling through the century (and certainly from 1948, when an all-time high 82 percent of a war-addled nation smoked) and are now at 15.8 percent. Arnott says it's difficult to pinpoint labelling and standardised packaging’s exact effectiveness, but instead sees it as one smaller facet in the war on tobacco-related harms.

Professor Adam Winstock, founder of the Global Drug Survey, chimes with this: "Over the last 15 years there's been six independent surveys by police and health groups. Each has recommended the same things to reduce alcohol-related harms in this country: minimum pricing, lower density of outlets, reduce opening hours, reduce the drink-driving limits. There has been little appetite from the government to engage wholeheartedly with these, but they are the things that will make the most profound difference. Labelling is relatively small in comparison, but we think it can be a useful tool in pulling people out of their comfort zone."

When approached for comment regarding GDS's research, the Portman Group – the body responsible for leading social responsibility in the UK's £16 billion alcohol industry – said: "At the heart of this discussion is how can we help people make informed choices about alcohol. With the majority of us either drinking responsibly or choosing not to drink, we agree that warning labels would be an entirely disproportionate response. But we recognise there is more to do to support those who do misuse alcohol."

It’s not a point without merit: the majority of drinkers are non-problematic; 20.9 percent of the population don’t drink at all, and this rate increases to 27 percent among the supposedly more health-conscious 16 to 24-year-old. Also, alcohol is part of the culture: imagine a bank holiday not blurred at the seams by cans and pink suntans. It just would't work. It’s not who we are. But, in the age of information, putting more information on the can surely wouldn't hurt.

If you want help controlling your drinking, download Global Drug Survey’s Drinks Meter app.