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Health

Alcohol warning labels won’t make us cut down. (You won’t want to know what will.)

Alcohol. by Sarah-Jane, on Flickr“Warning! Drinking this could seriously harm your health.” Now I don’t know about you, but if I saw that on a bottle then I would think twice before letting it anywhere near my lips. But if Conservative MP Tracey Crouch gets her way, then such health warnings could be appearing on cans and bottles of all alcoholic drinks. It’s not the sort of thing you want gracing your wine cellar – seeing a black and white danger sticker on a prized 2007 bottle of Rioja will somehow take the edge off it.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m all in favour of having a good time but the sad truth is that far too many of us drink far too much. The UK has a serious alcohol problem and the stats make for scary reading: one in seven A&E attendances is due to alcohol, liver disease has doubled in the last 20 years among young adults, and over half of teenage girls regularly binge drink. Just think, if the Brits were better with their liquor then it would save the country a hefty £21 billion annually. Which is a enough to host the London Olympics twice a year in fact.

You don’t have to drink much to go overboard: in the UK, the suggested limit for a man is 4 units a day and for a woman it is 3 units a day. Regularly going over this quota is associated with damage to the liver, heart and brain; it is linked to obesity and certain cancers. An over-fondness of the grog and can even harm fertility and cause a man lose his ‘va-va-voom’.

Yes yes, I know what you’re thinking – a bit of tipple can be good for you. People who regularly drink a small amount of alcohol live slightly longer on average. Sometimes dubbed the ‘red wine effect’, the benefits of alcohol are usually greatly exaggerated. Because you really don’t need very much to be in optimum health – up to one small glass of wine (1-2 units) a day seems to be plenty. (Sadly not enough to get anyone standing on the table singing ‘Angels’ by Robbie Williams.)

Alcohol warning labels probably won’t work

It therefore sounds like the UK government are onto something with their warning labels. Sadly, I suspect such a scheme will amount to nothing more than fizz. For us folk are remarkably strong-willed when it comes to our drinking habits. Past research shows that, unlike tobacco warnings, alcohol labelling doesn’t make people cut back. A warning makes people more aware of the problems surrounding alcohol without changing how much they drink. (Presumably, no one thinks they drink too much.)

Rather, evidence repeatedly demonstrates that the key to making people drink less is to make it more difficult to get hold of. Ease of access is one of the biggest factors to affect how much we drink. Think about it: if you left a six pack of cider in the cupboard when the kids are having a house party, then you can’t really expect them to be there when you get home. Similarly, open a pub on every street corner and start selling beer at £1 a pint, and you’re going to have a very merry neighbourhood.

We’re not that far off now. Supermarkets offer alcohol 24 hours a day, and their big box beer deals frequently work out cheaper than bottled water. It’s not really surprising that Saturday nights in A&E are hairy.

Of course, if there’s one thing people hate more than a warning label, it’s is a price hike. Or worse than that: both. Imagine a label that read “Warning: buying this drink will seriously harm your bank balance”. Now that would leave a bitter taste in anyone’s mouth.

Thanks for reading – all opinions expressed are my own. Feel free to add your thoughts in the comments below.


Image source: Sarah-Jane, on Flickr

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About Stuart Farrimond

I love writing about science and health subjects. Strange, because I also teach the same things. I trained as a medical doctor before turning my hand to other things. Shortlisted for The Guardian/Observer for Science Writer of the Year 2011 and editor for Guru Magazine I also like to grow large pumpkins...

Discussion

2 thoughts on “Alcohol warning labels won’t make us cut down. (You won’t want to know what will.)

  1. Again they are trying to affect people without actually understanding how it will, because across the spectrum of the drinkers, they will have differing values and reasons for drinking. Some may be affected,some not, I assume the vast majority will look at it and have another Drink ?

    Posted by maltus1 | August 27, 2014, 6:32 pm
    • Well, that’s what the research seems to show in countries that have tried it before. Alcohol warning labels do raise people’s awareness of the problems associated with drinking too much, but – on average – doesn’t change how much they actually drink. I guess most people will just look at it and have another drink. I guess after the first couple of drinks, you’ve given up caring what the label says anyway…
      Thanks for commenting!

      Posted by Stuart Farrimond | September 4, 2014, 11:47 am

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