More detailed alcohol warning labels could reduce health damage, researchers suggest

You know that drinking alcohol is not the… best something for your health, but how bad is it really? After all, in the United States, two-thirds of adults report some level of alcohol use.

When we imagine the health damage of drinking, we think of car accidents rather than cancer. This is largely because the alcohol industry has suppressed efforts to educate consumers about alcohol-related health risks while championing the idea that alcohol can be beneficial to health, say two researchers with ties to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. .

In a New England Journal of Medicine perspective piece, co-authors Anna H. Grummon, PhD, and Marissa G. Hall, PhD, propose updating alcohol container warning labels as a strategy to help consumers make more informed decisions about how much they drink.

In April 2022, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released statistics showing that alcohol consumption is responsible for more than 140,000 deaths a year — that’s more than 380 deaths a day. COVID-19 has exacerbated the situation, with alcohol-related deaths rising 25% in the first year of the pandemic.

Still, a recent national survey found that nearly 70% of American adults have no idea that even light or moderate alcohol consumption can increase their risk of cancer.

“Many people are not aware of the full range of risks associated with alcohol consumption,” said Grummon, the study’s lead author and a Gillings alumnus — now a research scientist in the Department of Nutrition at Harvard University’s TH Chan School of Public Health. . “For example, there is now scientific consensus that alcohol increases the risk of several cancers, including head and neck cancer, breast cancer and colon cancer. But two-thirds of Americans are unaware of these risks.”

One strategy to address these knowledge gaps could be to update the required warning labels on alcohol packaging. Such warnings are an inexpensive, sustainable public health strategy to inform consumers and encourage healthier behavior.

For example, more than 150 countries require warning labels on cigarette packages, and the policy has contributed to a remarkable decline in the number of smokers in recent decades.

Based on past research findings, the most effective warning labels are prominently displayed on the front of product packaging, include visual elements such as photos or illustrations, and come in a variety of rotating designs, preventing them from getting “stale” for consumers.

The alcohol warning currently in use in the US contains none of these elements and was written when there was much less evidence about the harm associated with alcohol consumption.

“The current US warning label hasn’t been updated in over 30 years and goes largely unnoticed,” said Hall, the study’s senior author and an assistant professor in the Gillings School’s Department of Health Behavior. (She is also a member of the Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center and a faculty member at the Carolina Population Center.) “Also, the warning says that alcohol ‘can cause health problems,’ a phrase so vague it’s almost misleading. The mounting evidence about the harm caused by alcohol, the government has a duty to inform its citizens about these risks.”

The warning label strategy has strong precedent: Think about those two-thirds of American adults — most of us! — who didn’t know that alcohol is linked to cancer? Research has also found that two-thirds of Americans are also in favor of requiring new, more specific health-related warning labels for alcohol products.