If all risky actions were accompanied by warnings, briefing papers for today’s COAG meeting would have carried the following alert – “Warning: Bad alcohol policies can seriously damage your political credibility”.

Binge drinking is on the COAG agenda and warning labels on alcohol products have been flagged by the Prime Minister and Health Minister as a potential strategy to deal with the problem.

It’s easy to see the attraction of warning labels. They are cheap (at least for the Government), easy to implement and highly visible.

The only problem is that they don’t appear to work.

A comprehensive review of research into the impact of alcohol warning labels was undertaken by Professor Tim Stockwell (of Australia’s National Drug Research Institute) for the Canadian Government in 2005. After examining a large number of studies he concluded that:

…there is little or no measurable change in drinking behaviour and related harms as a result of the introduction of alcohol warning labels.

In fact, there is a danger that warning labels could backfire. In 2000 when the Australian and New Zealand Food Authority looked at this issue, it found that:

…there is considerable scientific evidence that warnings statements may result in an increase in the undesirable behaviour in “at risk” groups.

Alcohol poses a much greater policy challenge than tobacco and other drugs, largely because it has both positive and negative impacts on health. People who drink at low levels live longer than those who don’t drink at all. In 2003, according to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, 3,430 deaths were caused by alcohol use and 2,346 were prevented. The National Drug Research Institute (NDRI) has estimated that for each death prevented by low-risk alcohol consumption, an average of seven years of life is saved.

This creates problems for the introduction of warning labels. There is a danger that they could reduce the beneficial use of alcohol — by scaring low level users into abstinence — without having an impact on problem drinkers. Compared with tobacco, there is a much greater danger that alcohol warning labels could result in a negative overall impact on health.

It’s also important to get binge drinking among young people in perspective. Although a high proportion of youth alcohol consumption is at risk levels, on average, young people drink much less than older people. According to National Health Survey data, less than 1% of teenagers and only 3% of people aged 20 to 29 consume alcohol daily, compared with 13% of those aged 50-59 and 17% of those aged over 60. Young drinkers are at increased risk of alcohol-related injuries, but most deaths caused through alcohol use occur in people aged over 50.

The issue is partly one of visibility. The 15-year-old quaffing Blueberry Breezers at the bus interchange is a much more visible problem than the 50-year-old who quietly downs a bottle of scotch at home every evening.

This is not to deny that binge drinking among young people is a serious health and social problem. However, it is a complex behaviour that requires a complex policy response. Targeted and evidenced-based strategies that address the underlying causes of teenage binge drinking are a much better option than warning labels.

At best warning labels could act to raise community awareness of the harms associated with alcohol use. However, at worst they could fuel risk-taking behaviour among those who already have problems with alcohol use, while creating a false complacency in the broader community that something is being done to address this important issue.

The best strategy for COAG today is to adopt a harm minimisation approach to policy making and ignore the proposal for alcohol warning labels.

Declaration: Jennifer Doggett has done some work for the Australasian Associated Brewers (peak body for the beer industry) in the past, managing a youth alcohol program that they fund in conjunction with the Alcohol Education and Rehabilitation Foundation.