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02/09/2011

Bad practice example - Labelling by Australian alcohol industry

Over the past couple of weeks there have been discussions in Australia about placing health warning messages on alcoholic beverages.

They have followed publication of the government’s report ‘Labelling Logic’ which puts forward recommendations for labelling regulations in Australia.

The proposed initiatives tackle similar issues to these recently agreed in the ‘Provisions of Food Information to Consumers’ legislation in the EU. However, with a greater success for the good of public health than we have witnessed in the EU.

In relation to alcohol the Panel recommended:

- Generic alcohol warning messages on packages but these will be introduced only if they would be part of a comprehensive multifaceted national campaign targeting the public health problems in the society

- Suitably worded warning message about the risks of consuming alcohol while pregnant on containers and at point of sale for unpacked drinks

- Energy content to be displayed on the labels (however it does not have to be front of pack)

- Drinks that are mixtures of alcohol and other beverages need to comply with all general nutrition food labelling requirements.

In a clearly pre-emptive move against the imposition of in-depth and health focused labelling requirements, the drinks industry has announced that it will place ‘consumer information messages’ on its products.

Drinkwise an industry body, similar to the Drinkaware Trust in the UK, have declared that the liquor industry will adopt the following messages:

- Kids and Alcohol Don’t mix

- Is Your Drinking Harming Yourself or Others?

- It is Safest Not to Drink While Pregnant OR pictogram

Drinkwise members, jointly account for 80% by volume of the alcohol sold in Australia. The companies who signed up for the initiative include Carlton United Breweries, which will roll out the labels on some its popular Carlton Draught and Pure Blonde brands. Diageo Australia will initially run labels on the Gordon’s Gin and with time will apply, as they call it ‘consumer information messages’ on Smirnoff and Jonnie Walker. The labels are planned to be implemented in the next couple of weeks.

However, the labels proposed by the alcohol industry appear to be a smoke screen to avoid placing important and convincing messages on the drinks. The voluntarily introduced ‘consumer information messages’ are ambiguous, lack clarity and most importantly fail to inform people of the short and long term effects of drinking.

Experts agree that the move from the alcohol industry is not tackling the crucial issues related to harm caused by alcohol, Australian Medical Association president Steve Hambleton emphasised that ‘warnings should be clearer about health effects’. Mike Daube, a spokesperson for Public Health Association of Australia commented that ‘proposed warnings look more like public relations than public health’.

Crucially such messages do not carry the same authority as warnings from independent body, Chief Executive of Cancer Council Australia Professor Ian Oliver said: ‘information is missing- like the link between cancer and excessive drinking, I think it is always preferable that an external agency determines what sort of information is in the best interest of the public so they can make an informed choice about the use of something like alcohol’

In Europe only France carries mandatory health warning label concerning consumption of alcohol while pregnant. It was introduced in 2006, the message says: consumption of alcoholic beverages during pregnancy even in small amounts can seriously damage the child’s health’, producers also have the choice to place a pictogram instead of the message.

It remains to be seen if Europe will take the harm caused by alcohol seriously, introducing mandatory health warning messages developed by an independent body could definitely be an inexpensive and realistic first step.

Links

Eurocare Position on Health Warning Labels (March 2011)

Overview of labelling initiatives

Preliminary library of alcohol health information and warning labels