Time to look again at alcohol labels

Mark Leyshon | August 2018 | 7 minutes

When was the last time you looked at an alcohol label? I mean, really looked?

According to the findings of new study from the University of South Wales (USW), funded by Alcohol Concern Cymru, it appears shoppers largely ignore the detail on product labels when buying alcohol.

We funded this study because there has been only limited previous research examining the value and effectiveness of alternative alcohol labels. We wanted to find out if current labels are fit for purpose in adequately communicating health information to consumers and how they might be improved.

Armed with some high-tech eyewear equipment and a cleverly-constructed mock alcohol aisle on the University’s campus, the researchers recorded participants’ behaviour when selecting alcoholic drinks to ‘buy’. They found that most paid little attention to alcohol labels beyond the brand name, with the price of the products dictating their purchasing choices. In fact, less than half even bothered to turn around the product to view the reverse label and, when they did, this usually comprised no more than a glance.

Why might this be important? Key information about the product, such as unit content, reminders to ‘drink responsibly’ and guidance about low-risk drinking, if they are present at all, are almost exclusively found on this back or side labels.

Previous research has shown that health information and warnings on alcoholic drinks have little effect on people’s drinking. This may be because people are already aware of the risks associated with alcohol, and/or are not concerned about them, but it might also be that that consumers are just not seeing this information in the first place.

UK and European law requires that certain information like volume, strength and the product's origin must appear on the labels of all alcoholic beverages, and industry body the Portman Group recommends the inclusion of additional information such as unit content, warnings about drinking whilst pregnant and details relating to Drinkaware. However, evidence suggests that the latter additional information is often absent or out of date, and health warnings comprise less than 5% of the total packaging.

So, if this information is either not present or hidden away in small print, it is reasonable to ask whether current arrangements working as well as they should and how labels might be designed to better convey this information, without unduly affecting the overall look of the product?

The latter question led us to design new product labels with health information more prominently displayed on the front of bottles and cans. One sample label is below.


Of course, there are limitations to this study. It took place on a university campus, meaning that it’s likely that many of the participants were students (though there’s evidence that almost all consumers are driven by brand and price) and the sample size was relatively small. Nevertheless, the study suggests that there’s more to investigate here; surely if labels are working properly the information they contain should be clear and accessible for everyone?

We don’t know whether labels like these could steer consumers to more moderate drinking, but there is a strong argument that we all have a right to clearer information about the alcoholic products we are consuming. We have this information about other products and should for alcohol – even more so, because alcohol can cause serious harm, and so is not a product like any other.

The USW research shows there is considerable scope for improvement in alcohol labelling. If the alcohol industry proves unable – or unwilling – to up their game, then the UK Government should step in to introduce statutory minimum requirements for all alcohol labels to replace the current voluntary codes.

Download pdf

Investigating the potential impact of changing alcohol product labels

Read the research. (1.37Mb)