The alcohol industry – and all those who sail with it – are awaiting the release of the Preventative Health Taskforce report which has now been with Minister Roxon for some weeks. The Taskforce’s brief was “to provide evidence-based advice to governments and health providers on preventative health programs and strategies, focusing on the burden of chronic disease currently caused by obesity, tobacco and the excessive consumption of alcohol”.

The CEO of VicHealth, Todd Harper, argues that one area where the community would support immediate action is labelling that clearly spells out the health issues. He writes:

“It’s the fourth biggest global cause of death and injury.  Use of this product is associated with an increased risk of several cancers.  It causes $3.5 billion in lost productivity in Australia each year and is involved in more than 60 per cent of crimes investigated by police.  A large proportion of the harmful use of this product is borne by others – not just those that use it.

What do you think would be an appropriate warning to consumers about such a product?

This product is alcohol, and it is not required to carry health information aside from the quantity within its container. There is nothing about the product’s potential to cause injury, brain damage, cancer or impact on pregnancy.  Unlike food, it carries no information about kilojoule content.

We provide consumers with information on the harms associated with fumes from spray cans; that some foods contain traces of nuts; that excessive consumption of some mints has a laxative effect, and that some products cause drowsiness.

Alcohol however has no such health information.

Recent research by the Social Research Centre for VicHealth identified that consumers do want more information about alcohol – including the health effects, safer consumption and the nutritional information of alcohol.

The research found:

Label content                                    % support

Recommended daily guidelines for low risk alcohol consumption        85%

Advice that exceeding daily guidelines may be harmful            89%

Targeted advice for specific groups                        91%

Nutritional information (cal/kJ, alcohol, protein, fat, carbohydrates per
container and per 100ml)                            76%

List of ingredients                                86%

Number of standard drinks (displayed in a uniform way)            95%

Alcohol content (alcohol by volume)                        97%

Labels can provide information that is commonplace with many other products. Consumers deserve to know more, and this latest research shows that they want to know more.

More than 80 per cent of Australians drink and 1.4 million consume alcohol on a daily basis – that’s a significant number of people who are calling for more information so they can make more informed choices about alcohol consumption.

The alcohol industry spends more than $119 million a year reminding customers of the benefits of alcohol – its taste, how it is great for making friends, having fun, and a ‘must have’ when watching sport, or at events with family or friends. But none of this provides consumers with perhaps the most important piece of information – how alcohol affects your health.

Consumer information on alcohol labelling should be a component of a broad strategy to reduce alcohol harms in our community. Labelling does provide information to consumers at two vital points – at the point of purchase and at the point of consumption.  In this way, labels can be a timely reminder to consumers of other health messages they may have heard at another point in time such as televised education campaigns.

Clearly we’re at the beginning of a journey. Much more discussion needs to be had with drinkers about the way the messages are communicated and different methods need to be used to target specific age groups and cultural diversities.

We’ve made a start and what this latest study suggests is that a number of broad principles should be considered when developing labels. These include:

•    Simple, clear and direct language;
•    Provide new information and evidence wherever possible;
•    Provide factual information;
•    Aim to educate and inform, rather than be authoritarian or prescriptive of behaviour.

It’s a useful conversation to start.”