Knowing what's in the bottle: why we need labelling laws

Alcohol Change UK | September 2019 | 7 minutes

Policy proposal: Develop statutory minimum requirements for labelling alcohol products. This should include health warnings, ingredients and nutritional information alongside existing advice.

The Alcohol Charter, produced jointly by the Drugs, Alcohol & Justice Cross-Party Parliamentary Group and the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Alcohol Harm, sets out effective and workable policies to reduce the damage to society caused by alcohol misuse. The proposal above is one of 16 evidence-based policy proposals laid out in the Charter.

Alcohol Change UK is one of more than 30 organisations that endorse the Alcohol Charter. Here, we outline our reasons for supporting this proposal.

Labels on food, drinks and other products are important. They are how we find out about ingredients - about what we’re bringing into our homes or putting into our bodies. They help us make decisions about which products to buy, and how to use them. That’s why UK and EU law dictates that we have detailed information on most products, especially food and drink.

You might expect that alcohol, as a product which can seriously harm health, would be subject to even stricter rules. Yet in the UK there are no requirements for any of the following information to be included on alcohol labels.

  • ingredients
  • nutritional information (including calories)
  • number of units
  • information about the low-risk drinking guidelines of 14 units per week
  • warnings against drinking during pregnancy and drink-driving
  • information about how alcohol can damage one’s health, for example how it increases the risk of several forms of cancer, liver disease and stroke

The only legally-required information is the alcohol percentage by volume, and a few other pieces of factual information such as the country of origin and the volume.

In January 2016 the UK’s Chief Medical Officers – the top doctors – published new low-risk drinking guidelines based on the latest evidence. Yet at the time of writing, more than three and a half years later, only a small minority of alcohol labels show these guidelines. Worse, an Alcohol Health Alliance survey of 320 products found that two-thirds of labels still display the old guidelines, which indicate a weekly maximum that is more than 14 units – in some cases double that. The impact of withholding this information from consumers is clear. Only 16% of the public are aware of the guidelines, meaning that the vast majority do not have the information they need to make informed choices around their drinking.

In July 2019 the Portman Group, the trade association for alcohol producers, announced that it would “encourage all alcohol producers to include the Chief Medical Officers’ low risk drinking guidance on their labels”. Previously they had only agreed to remove out of date guidance, and simply advised the best way to present the new guidance if producers chose to include them without recommending it explicitly.

Now the up-to-date guidelines join the three other recommendations: to include number of units, signposting to Drinkaware and the ‘avoid drinking in pregnancy’ logo.

What’s important to note is that none of these recommendations are compulsory for Portman Group members to include on their labels, only voluntary. The Portman Group cannot force producers to do anything, and doesn’t carry out any proactive monitoring or enforcement.

Alcohol producers were given a three-year grace period to remove the (pre-2016) guidelines from labels, which ended on 1 September 2019. The rules only apply to alcohol produced on or after 1 September, which means that even after three years there could still be alcohol in the shops showing the incorrect guidelines. We’ll be watching closely to see whether changes have really been made.

As a minimum, we expect the out-of-date guidelines to be removed and also hope to see the up-to-date guidelines included, as well as unit information. But we hope to see more changes than that. Research commissioned by PHE, due to be published later this year, found that, when presented together, unit information and low-risk guidelines are more effective in helping consumers understand how much of a product they should drink than only presenting one or the other.

With a possible upcoming general election, we might soon have much stricter rules for alcohol labelling. In June 2019, Jonathan Ashworth MP, the Shadow Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, announced new Labour policy that would mandate the UK’s drinking guidelines, unit information and nutritional information to be included on alcohol labels.

We want alcohol labels to show the following, in a legible format:

  • The current CMO guidelines: to keep health risks from alcohol to a minimum, drink no more than 14 units per week for both men and women
  • The number of units per serving (or per container for spirits) as a proportion of the CMO guidelines, presented as a pictograph
  • Nutritional information per serving
  • Full ingredients listed with allergens in bold

Driven by their vision of a world with no serious alcohol harm, Alcohol Change UK works to create five evidence-based changes: improved knowledge, better policies and regulation, shifted cultural norms, improved drinking behaviours, and more and better support and treatment.

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The policies laid out in the Alcohol Charter represent realistic, powerful ways to reduce the harm caused by alcohol. Help make them happen.

Sign up as an organisational supporter of the Charter and help the policies of the Charter become reality.

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