Alcohol health labelling is needed urgently—the Government must act

If you take a look inside your kitchen cupboard, you will find that your tins of beans and bags of rice all display food labels telling you everything you need to know about what lurks beneath the wrapper: from ingredients to sugar content. Even a bottle of mineral water must display its chemical composition. There are also required warnings for certain ingredients such as Carmoisine (“May have an adverse effect on activity and attention in children”) or Polyols (“Excessive consumption may cause a laxative effect”). Yet for alcohol—a product linked more than 200 health conditions, including seven types of cancer—no such warning is compulsory. 

Alcohol labelling remains woefully inadequate. Alcoholic drinks are only required to display the volume and strength (in ABV) and common allergens. Information on nutritional values (including calories), ingredients, or health warnings is not required and is therefore largely absent from labels.

Alcohol’s exemption from labelling rules puts drinkers’ health at jeopardy. Without knowing what is in your drink, how is a person expected to make informed decisions about what, and how much, to consume? Inadequate labelling means that most of us are unaware that some alcohol products contain more than 100% of your recommended daily sugar intake, or that some cocktails contain the same number of calories as a cheeseburger.

Not only do the public have a right to know what is in their drink, they also want to know. A recent survey conducted by YouGov found that 75% of people want the number of units in a product on alcohol labels, 61% want calorie information, and 53% want the amount of sugar. 

Previous research from the Alcohol Health Alliance also found that only one in five people know the Chief Medical Officers’ drinking guidelines, and only one in ten can spontaneously identify cancer as a health consequence of alcohol. Alcohol labels are an effective tool to change that: a study in Canada showed that consumers exposed to health warnings on labels were three times more likely to be aware of the drinking guidelines, and were also more likely to know about the link between alcohol and cancer.

Public Health England’s comprehensive evidence review on alcohol harm in 2016 confirmed that alcohol product labelling can increase consumer awareness and knowledge. Better labelling and the need for transparency may also encourage the alcohol industry to create less harmful drink recipes, as it has done in the food industry. A UK study found that items from restaurants with in-store menu labelling on food had on average 45% less fat and 60% less salt than items from other restaurants.

Ahead of the Government’s consultation on calorie labelling this summer, the Alcohol Health Alliance wrote to the then Health Secretary, Matt Hancock in support of the inclusion of calorie content and health information on labels. The letter was signed by 94 leading health bodies, academics and Parliamentarians. 

We need the Government to press on with bringing in new rules for alcohol labelling with the same vigour it has shown for changes to food labelling. We are already disappointed by reports that alcoholic drinks may be exempt from upcoming changes to include calories on restaurant menus—we cannot afford to keep treating a product that is linked to 80 deaths a day in the UK so favourably. 

Legislation is needed if we expect a change. The current voluntary system of alcohol labelling is not working. Despite the Government’s efforts to encourage alcohol producers to reflect the drinking guidelines on labels, research by the Alcohol Health Alliance shows that more than 70% of the labels reviewed did not include the up-to-date guidelines. 

We must empower consumers with the knowledge they need to make informed decisions when it comes to their health. The Government must seize this opportunity to introduce calorie labelling, health warnings, and product information onto alcohol containers. It is our right to know what is in our drink.

Ian Gilmore, Chair of the Alcohol Health Alliance and Director of the Liverpool Centre for Alcohol Research.

Megan Griffiths, Communications Manager, Alcohol Health Alliance.

Competing interests: none declared.

The Alcohol Health Alliance (AHA) is a coalition of 50 health and alcohol organisations who share a common interest in reducing alcohol-related harm, and who campaign for evidence-based policies to reduce this harm. Members include medical royal colleges, charities, patient representatives and alcohol health campaigners.