Health research scientists typically don’t spend much time applying labels to consumer products.
But Erin Hobin armed herself with a sticker gun and did just that for five hours this past weekend, helping Yukon usher in what she calls the first experiment of its kind in the world, one that could ultimately change how all Canadians view a popular habit.
As of Monday, bottles of liquor, wine and other alcohol in the territory’s stores now include large stickers advising that drinking can cause breast and colon cancer, and indicating “safe” consumption levels.
The content of the cigarette-style labels was informed by two new studies spearheaded by Hobin, a Public Health Ontario researcher, and colleagues at the University of Victoria. Their effect will be analyzed over the next eight months, as health groups worldwide try to increase awareness of booze’s little-known carcinogenic potential.
Only Korea has anything similar, and its labels do not contain specific alerts about alcohol’s association with multiple cancers.
“Alcohol is such a big part of our culture in Canada,” she said. “We’re inundated with alcohol marketing that shows us how much fun alcohol is. It’s part of most of our celebrations … (But) consumers have a right to know the health risks if they do choose to drink alcohol. If they do choose to drink, they can do so in a safer manner.”
Some other places — including the United States — have warning labels of a sort on alcohol, but typically they are small, text-only messages that address the commonly known risks of drunk driving and drinking while pregnant. Some studies have suggested they have minimal impact.
One of the large, red and yellow labels on bottles in Yukon warns that “alcohol can cause cancer … including breast and colon cancers.” The other uses graphics to suggest women should have no more than two standard drinks a day and men three — and should plan two or more non-drinking days a week — to “reduce health risks.”
A third label is in the works that will explain what constitutes a standard drink — five ounces of wine, 12 ounces of beer or 1.5 ounces of spirits.
Because Yukon is a relatively tiny jurisdiction that could not dictate labelling to most suppliers, Yukon Liquor Corporation staff — and Hobin — had to affix the stickers to thousands of bottles for the rollout in Whitehorse.
A spokesman for Canada’s liquor industry said it is good to provide consumers with accurate information, but questioned why the warning labels discuss only cancer and other risks, and not the possible benefits for heart health.
“Simply presenting all the negatives all the time, and not the positive, is I’m not sure terribly helpful,” said Jann Westcott, president of Spirits Canada. “You have to have both messages there, because otherwise it comes off as a kind of scare message. You mention the word cancer, and people freak out. And rightfully so.”
But Hobin said the evidence of health benefits is “very conflicting,” a view echoed by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and other groups. A 2014 report by Swedish medical organizations concluded that the science suggesting moderate drinking can prevent some heart disease is “weak” at best, while the known harms far outweigh any arguable benefits.
One of the recent label studies by Hobin, University of Victoria’s Kate Vallance and others reported on focus groups held in the territory, concluding there was “strong support” for warnings, with participants favouring larger ones that included pictograms.
The other paper was based on an internet survey of more than 2,000 Ontario residents, suggesting that most supported having alcohol labels that explain the size of standard drinks and safer levels of drinking.
The real-world study to be conducted on Yukon’s new initiative is precedent-setting, the only other such research having been done on the limited American labels, Hobin said.
But the project may well butt against some common perceptions.
Many Canadians assume that drinking in moderation is harmless, a notion encouraged by that research suggesting small amounts of alcohol can reduce heart-health risk.
In a report earlier this month, however, the influential American Society of Clinical Oncology became the latest medical organization to warn of the often-overlooked dangers, saying that alcohol is directly linked to more than one in 20 cancers worldwide.
Research suggests that even light drinking can slightly increase the cancer risk, the society concluded.
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