Graphic labels on alcohol could encourage moderation, survey suggests

Graphic labels on alcohol could encourage moderation, survey suggests

Alcohol warning labelsTwo alcohol warning labels are shown from an online survey conducted by Public Health Ontario. (Public Health Ontario)

Josh Elliott,

Published Friday, June 17, 2016 8:13AM EDT
Last Updated Friday, June 17, 2016 10:46AM EDT

Graphic warning labels on alcohol products could prove effective at making Canadians aware of the dangers of excessive drinking, according to the results from a survey by Public Health Ontario.

An online survey conducted by PHO found that the most effective warning labels for informing Canadians about the adverse health effects of alcohol were ones with graphic, negative images on bottles. In fact, the most effective warnings were those modelled after tobacco warnings, which show full-colour, disturbing photos alongside warning text.

“Alcohol use is linked to over 200 health conditions and the majority of adult Canadians drink alcohol,” PHO’s Dr. Erin Hobin told, in a phone interview on Thursday. She said warning labels on alcohol could help Canadians make more informed choices about how much they choose to drink. “There’s very low awareness among Canadians about the link between alcohol and health,” Hobin said.

Online survey respondents were asked to rate a variety of warnings that showed either text-only messages, text with a positive image or text with a negative image. Hobin says the most effective warnings included full-colour, negative depictions of the health consequences of drinking, accompanied by strong borders and a “WARNING” title with the text. Text-only warnings were less effective, but still had a stronger impact than text warnings accompanied by positive images, such as one that showed two women enjoying a bottle of wine together.

The study presented a variety of negative images depicting the adverse health effects of alcohol, the results of long-term alcohol dependency, and the potential carnage of drinking-and-driving car crashes.

The single most effective warning depicted a yellow-skinned woman in a hospital bed, who was suffering from jaundice and cirrhosis. “It is a pretty extreme image,” Hobin said.

Hobin says it was no surprise to see the tobacco-style warnings eliciting the strongest responses. “We tried to translate what we’ve learned from the tobacco literature to alcohol warning labels,” she said.

PHO found there was “strong support” from survey respondents for adding warning labels to alcohol products, Hobin said. She also pointed out that some countries have made text warnings mandatory on alcohol packaging, but graphic images are not required.

Alcohol manufacturers are not currently required to include warnings on their products in Canada.

The study was conducted with input from a variety of non-governmental organizations and policy-makers, but no major alcohol-industry interests were involved.

The findings were presented at a conference on Thursday, but have not yet been submitted for publishing.

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