By L.A. Williams
Christian Action League
September 21, 2022
If you knew something you were doing increased your risk of getting cancer, would you stop doing it? Or at least do it less? That’s the logical reasoning behind a new push to require better warning labels on alcohol.
“Requiring new, well-designed warning labels on alcohol containers could be a commonsense strategy for providing information to consumers and reducing the burden of alcohol-related harm,” say public health researchers Anna Grummon and Marissa Hall in an article published late last month in the New England Journal of Medicine.
The harm that alcohol creates is well-documented. According to statistics released this spring by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, alcohol consumption kills more than 140,000 people each year in the United States. That’s more than 380 per day. Even so, many Americans don’t know about some of alcohol’s most egregious effects.
Beyond the injuries and deaths caused by driving while impaired, a growing body of research links alcohol consumption to diseases such as hypertensive heart disease, cirrhosis and dementia. Furthermore, research shows that drinking is associated with an increased risk of cancers of the breast, liver, mouth, throat (pharynx and larynx), esophagus and bowel. In 2018, scientists in the United Kingdom published a study showing that alcohol damages DNA in blood-forming stem cells, which may be the mechanism behind many of the illnesses.
Despite all the evidence and frequent media reports on the studies, a recent survey reveals that nearly 70 percent of U.S. adults are unaware that alcohol consumption increases the risk of cancer.
“When people think of cancer-causing vices, they think of smoking, but drinkers need to know that they are also driving up their risk for a cancer diagnosis,” says the Rev. Mark Creech, executive director of the Christian Action League of North Carolina. “The CDC states this very clearly: ‘All alcoholic drinks, including red and white wine, beer, and liquor, are linked with cancer. The more you drink, the higher your cancer risk.’”
Grummon and Hall point out that more than 150 countries require warning labels on cigarette packs and that the warnings have contributed to falling smoking rates over the past several decades. Nine countries followed the tobacco example and now require warning labels for unhealthy foods and sugar-loaded beverages.
“Even plastic packaging often has a picture and label warning you of the dangers of suffocation should you let a child play with it. Hair dryer labels have drawings showing that you shouldn’t use them near water,” Creech said. “Why shouldn’t alcohol be properly labeled?”
Research shows that warning labels are most effective when they include photographs or icons, are placed prominently on package fronts, and when the content of the message is rotated to avoid becoming overly routine.
Grummon and Hall say the current alcohol warning in the United States fails on every level. It’s in small text, nearly always on the back or side of packaging, and has no pictorial elements. Perhaps even worse, the warning message has remained unchanged since implementation more than 30 years ago, despite the plethora of research revealing the heightened danger of alcohol use.
The existing label, adopted in the late 1980s, focuses on risks during pregnancy and the risks of operating machinery and ends by noting that alcohol “may cause health problems,” language that Grummon and Hall describe as “so understated that it borders on being misleading.”
They rightly argue that accurate and updated warning labels would not only give consumers information at the moment they need it to make reasoned decisions about buying and drinking alcohol, but the labels would also raise general awareness of alcohol’s harms — awareness that could increase public support for better alcohol-control policies across the board.
Already, two thirds of Americans support requiring new, specific health-related warning labels for alcohol, and earlier this month, a new study out of Australia sheds light on how well such labeling would work, especially when paired with an action step.
Researchers in the Land Down Under say the way to get people to reduce their drinking is two-fold: Highlight the increased risk of cancer that comes with alcohol and ask drinkers to keep count of each and every drink.
“We found that pairing information about alcohol and cancer with a particular practical action – counting their drinks – resulted in drinkers reducing the amount of alcohol they consumed,” explained economist and psychologist Simone Pettigrew from The George Institute for Global Health.
The study, performed last year, divided participants into different groups and showed each group different ads and messages about drinking. A TV commercial linking alcohol and cancer, together with a suggestion to keep a tally of your drinks, was one of the most effective at getting people to try to cut their alcohol intake.
“Many people don’t know that alcohol is a carcinogen,” said Pettigrew. “It’s important information that drinkers should have access to. But telling people alcohol causes cancer is just part of the solution – we also need to give them ways to take action to reduce their risk.”
Creech said better alcohol warning labels should be a public policy priority.