Alcohol Labelling – it's time to give consumers all the information they need to make informed choices

Sarah Schoenberger | June 2022 | 8 minutes

Sarah Schoenberger, Head of Policy at the Institute of Alcohol Studies, tells us all about how alcohol labelling continues to fail consumers. The AHA's new research released today reveals vital health information is left off most packaging.

"Information that warns us of the risks of consuming alcohol should stand out, so we can easily and quickly spot it when we look at the product."

About four years ago, I started my job advocating to reduce alcohol harm. As I learned more about the field, I was shocked at how little we know about what is in our alcoholic drinks.

I was used to being able to look at the label of any food or non-alcoholic drink, and get an exhaustive list of ingredients, calories and a full nutritional breakdown. That information is important if we want to make decisions about what to eat and drink. And it can be vital if you have a specialist diet because of a health condition, such as diabetes.

Trying to find out the same information for alcohol is a lot harder - a bottle of milk has more product information on the label than a bottle of beer!

Alcohol labels rarely ever give us any other information either, such as the impact drinking alcohol can have on our health, or a reminder of the low-risk drinking guidelines. This is in stark contrast to tobacco, where health warnings – and graphic pictures – are legally required.

Why is this important?

Alcohol is one of the biggest risk factors for ill-health and early death and is linked to more than 200 different conditions and injuries. This includes seven types of cancer, heart disease and stroke – yet most people don’t know this.

Over the past four years, I’ve looked at the labels of countless bottles and cans – often to the annoyance of my friends when I got exasperated about a particularly bad example.

In preparation for our new report, I reviewed various labels:

The good news

Some labels provided a full list of ingredients, a nutritional breakdown including calories, and an easily visible box informing me of the low-risk drinking guidelines, and that drinking alcohol can increase my risk of various health conditions, including cancer. This is a vast improvement from last time I did this research and proof that it is possible to provide this information on alcohol labels and that there is space for it.

The bad news

The good examples are the minority. Our full analysis of almost 370 alcohol labels showed that only one in five products provided full ingredients lists, just two in five provided calorie information and only one in 20 included the sugar content.

Additionally, more than a third of products failed to inform consumers of the low-risk drinking guidelines, and only 3% provided a health warning.

And some labels seemed to be intentionally trying to hide this vital health information. A typical tactic seems to be using very hard to read colour combinations – such as white font on a silver can, gold font on yellow background, or light green pictorial warnings on a green bottle – to inform of the unit content or low-risk drinking guidelines.

Another thing I noticed was that many labels put the pregnancy warning symbol (a strikethrough pregnant person drinking) right next to – and often smaller than – various recycling symbols. Looking at these labels, I wouldn’t have noticed the pregnancy warning if I hadn’t looked for it!

Information that warns us of the risks of consuming alcohol should stand out, so we can easily and quickly spot it when we look at the product.

After my visits to the supermarket, I was once again reminded that we need more transparency on alcohol labels. We as consumers have a right to know what is in the products we are consuming – so we can choose to act on it. The reluctance of alcohol companies to provide this information makes me wonder – what are they trying to hide?

What's next?

The Government has promised to consult on including more information on alcohol labels. We’ve been waiting for this consultation for almost two years. With 70 people dying every day because of alcohol, and almost 17,000 being diagnosed with alcohol-related cancer every year, we cannot wait any longer.

It is time to put product information and warnings on bottles and give consumers the information they need to make informed choices.

Read the full report here.