Report

Alcohol warning labels - do they work?

9 May 2012
Description

This background note provides a brief overview of the context for the proposed labeling reforms and a summary of some of the research evidence on the effectiveness of alcohol health warning labels.

In late 2011 the Government released through the Legislative and Governance Forum on Food Regulation its response to the report of the Independent Review of Food Labelling Law and Policy. This Review was a comprehensive examination of food labelling law and policy in Australia and was commissioned by the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) and the Australia and New Zealand Food Regulation Ministerial Council. It was undertaken by a panel chaired by former Australian Health Minister, Dr Neal Blewett. The Review contained a wide range of recommendations.

In its response, the Government agreed with the Review’s recommendation that a warning message about the risks of consuming alcohol while pregnant should be mandated on individual containers of alcoholic beverage. The Government indicated that, given the strong evidence about the risks of consuming alcohol while pregnant, it supported the introduction of health warning labels for pregnant women on all packaged alcoholic beverages.

Noting that the alcohol industry has already taken steps in this direction voluntarily—with pregnancy warnings now being alternated with other generic warning messages on alcoholic beverages—and acting on advice from COAG’s Standing Council on Health, the Government proposed that it would allow the industry two years in which to introduce pregnancy warning labels on all packaged alcohol products voluntarily, before regulating for the change.

At this stage, the Government does not intend to pursue the Review’s recommendation that it should mandate for the inclusion of generic health warning messages on alcohol labels. Instead, state and territory Health Ministers are to seek advice from the Australian Health Ministers’ Advisory Council (AHMAC) on ‘the efficacy of generic alcohol warnings in relation to a comprehensive national campaign on the public health problems of alcohol’.

There are two main related issues that are worth considering in relation to the Government’s response. The first of these is that a number of health researchers have already been critical of the new consumer information messages that are being included by the alcohol industry on the labels of alcohol products sold in Australia. The second is that there is some question as to just how effective alcohol warning labels are in reducing risky or harmful drinking.

This Background Note provides a brief overview of the context for the proposed labelling reforms and a summary of some of the research evidence on the effectiveness of alcohol health warning labels.

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2012
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