Reg’s Wine Blog – Post # 57, Warning Labels on Alcohol, March 1, 2018

In November 2017 the Yukon Liquor Corporation (the Yukon being a territory of Canada) began slapping warning labels on wines and spirits in their Whitehorse liquor stores. One warning label stated that “Alcohol can cause breast, colon, and other cancers”, while another says “To reduce health risks, drink no more than 2 (for a woman) or 3 (for a man) standard drinks a day. Plan two or more non-drinking days each week”. This caused quite a predictable negative reaction from alcohol producer groups such as The Beer Canada Trade Group, the Canadian Vintners Association, and Spirits Canada. Within a month the labels were gone and the experiment was put on hold, back to the drawing board for further study.

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When I looked further into the news reports on this event I learned that this program was federally financed by our tax dollars, and led by the director of the University of Victoria’s Canadian Institute for Substance Use Research (not substance abuse, but rather substance use), and a scientist from Public Health Ontario. The scientist admitted she had four years of her time invested in this project. What baffles me the most is the scary thought that an academic and a scientist hatched this plan over a four year period, spending taxpayer’s money, and embarked on a labeling program without consulting either producers or end users sufficiently (some local consultation was done).

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There are clearly some major flaws in the pilot project. Let’s take a look at some of them:

  • Alcohol itself does not cause cancer. Alcohol abuse by individuals over prolonged periods of time may contribute to cancer, but is more than likely not the only causal agent at work. Typically diet and stress also play major roles.
  • Different people have different metabolisms and varying tolerance levels to a wide range of ingested substances ranging from alcohol, tobacco, opioids, etc. to food, non-alcoholic drinks, sunlight, air pollution, etc. So what your metabolism is perfectly capable of handling without any apparent effect may in fact be highly toxic to someone else.
  • To suggest that anything more than 2 drinks per day for women and 3 drinks per day for men is putting your health at risk, is to imply that if you exceed those limits then you are being reckless and irresponsible. This also would put you into the category of “binge drinker”. This means that the last dinner party my wife and I attended consisted of 8 binge drinkers, because everyone in attendance consumed more than either 2 or 3 drinks over the course of the evening. That also means that just about every family dinner at my place celebrating Christmas, Easter, Labor Day, Thanksgiving, birthdays and anniversaries is just an excuse for binge drinking! Ouch, Houston I think we have a problem here. Don’t you just hate it when social and health standards are being set by academics and scientists, not only do they seem unrealistic, but there is no creativity to be found in the delivery of their message.
  • These guidelines want you to “plan two non-drinking days each week”. No mention as to whether these should be consecutive days, and why only two? Seems to me that it would be more sensible to plan as many as possible, but the language on the label should read “two or more” days per week, don’t you think?

So I did some further research, figuring that other jurisdictions must have already dealt with or taken a policy position on warning labels on alcohol bottles. The findings were quite interesting:

  • Only 37 of 195 countries in the world have warning labels on alcohol bottles, and that is less than 20%.
  • The majority of those 37 countries warn that alcohol may be harmful to your health, and is not to be consumed by minors or pregnant women.
  • None of those 37 countries state on warning labels that alcohol can cause cancer, much less breast and colon cancer. Some do mention that excessive alcohol consumption may cause cirrhosis of the liver, which itself is not a cancer.
  • None of those 37 countries are warning/suggesting on labels that consumers limit their alcohol intake to no more than 2 (for a woman) or 3 (for a man) standard drinks per day, and nobody is recommending that you plan two non-drinking days per week. So our Canadian scientist/academic team are in fact leading the international community in a worldwide first.

Some of the more humorous warning labels to be found include the following:

In Mauritius:

“Excessive consumption of alcoholic drinks causes serious health, social and domestic problems”

In South Africa:

“Alcohol increases your risk to personal injury”

“Alcohol is a major cause of violence and crime”

“Don’t drink and walk on the road, you may be killed”

In Turkey:

“Alcohol is not your friend”

In Thailand:

“Liquor drinking may cause cirrhosis and sexual impotency”

“Liquor drinking may cause less consciousness and death”

“Liquor drinking is dangerous to health and causes less consciousness”

“Liquor drinking is harmful to you and destroys your family”

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I also looked further in other provinces of Canada specifically to find out if anyone else was doing something different, and I stumbled across Quebec’s “Éduc’alcool” (which translates to mean alcohol education) program. Quebec runs ongoing media advertising, including a TV commercial, where two animated bears (husband and wife) emerge from a brain fog (or hibernation) and start touting the benefits of responsible drinking, with the two (for her) and three (for him) drink limits, including enhanced performance in the bedroom. Well that message hit home, sober sex is better sex, and more alcohol free days leads to more sex, now that makes sense I thought, this kind of advertising just may get the public’s attention, certainly the men.

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As I browsed through their website, I came upon their official policy position on warning labels on alcohol bottles where they have raised several good points such as:

  • Warning labels cause stress and anxiety, and may cause a moral panic in society.
  • Warning labels are not effective in changing behaviors or reducing the amount that people drink.
  • Warning labels are completely ineffective in reaching the heaviest drinkers, i.e. the primary target group.
  • Warning labels give regulators a false sense of security in thinking that they actually did something about the issue.
  • Warning labels are more beneficial to alcohol producers as a disclaimer to protect themselves against litigation.

We live in a modern society that is full of negative advertising, negative news, and negative messages of doom and gloom. It often seems that everything you do, think, eat, or drink, is harmful to you and those around you, so it is no wonder that warning labels on alcohol will not change human behavior because people have been conditioned to turn off or filter out negative messages. People drink for all kinds of reasons – to party, relax, unwind, destress, escape, forget, fall asleep, dull the pain, so with such a variety of incentives the only way regulators can compete for your attention is through positive incentives and messages. That is why I think that Éduc’alcool is bang on with such a positive and attention getting advertising message, implying that less intoxication leads to more and better sex. That may be hitting below the belt (ha,ha!), but their program is guaranteed to catch most men’s attention.

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I think it is time for some positive labeling on alcohol bottles rather than negative warning labels, so I am all in favour of labels such as:

  • “Sober sex is better sex”
  • “Less alcohol leads to more sex”
  • “Need to relax, unwind, destress? Get a massage!”

Anyways, let us hope that the funding for the Canadian academic/scientist team dries up, and that we put an end to warning labels and scare tactics as a way of trying to modify or change human behavior. Positive reinforcement is far more effective, good job Éduc’alcool!