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Alcohol Warning Labels Need an Update, Researchers Say

Sept. 1, 2022 – Warning labels on alcoholic beverages must be updated to detail details of potential harm to make them more effective, two US researchers say.

Current labeling has not changed for 30 years and focuses only on risks during pregnancy and when operating machinery, with a vague statement that alcohol “can cause health problems”.

This is “so understated it’s almost misleading,” the researchers say.

Science has moved on and there is now clear evidence of damage. Alcohol is classified by the International Agency for Research on Cancer as a Group 1 carcinogen and has been associated with a increased risk of many cancers. It has also been linked to a wide variety of diseases, from liver disease to pancreatitis to some types of heart disease.

Still, the public is usually unaware of the most serious health risks associated with drinking, they point out.

“We believe Americans deserve the opportunity to make informed decisions about their alcohol consumption,” said Anna H. Grummon, PhD, of the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health in Boston, and Marissa G. Hall, PhD, of the university of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

“Designing and introducing new alcohol warning labels should therefore be a research and policy priority,” they said.

The two researchers set out their arguments in The New England Journal of Medicine.

“Alcohol consumption and its associated harms are reaching crisis point in the United States,” they noted.

It now accounts for more than 140,000 deaths a year in the US, according to the latest data from the CDC. The COVID-19 pandemic has made the problem worse, with a 25% increase in alcohol-related deaths in 2020.

New, well-designed alcohol warning labels are a sensible way to educate consumers and reduce alcohol-related harm, they suggest.

What is a good warning label?

Warning labels are most effective when displayed prominently, when they contain images of a certain type, and when the content is rotated to prevent a message from getting “old,” the researchers say. This has worked well for cigarette packs, where this type of warning has increased smoking cessation rates, compared to smaller warning labels on the side of the pack.

There is also some evidence that this type of labeling may work for alcohol. When some stores in Yukon, Canada, temporarily placed large warnings about the risk of cancer with pictures on the front of alcohol containers, alcohol sales fell from 6% to 10%, they say.

But pressure from the alcohol industry led to: changes in the Yukon projectand while a general health warning remains, the label about increased cancer risk was removed.

The researchers say the alcohol industry is hindering efforts to educate the public. The industry spends more than $1 billion every year to market its products in the US

The authors warn that if the government doesn’t intervene, the alcohol industry will have little reason to share the risks.

And some companies are even linking their products to health campaigns, such as selling alcoholic beverages with a pink ribbon in October to promote efforts to raise money for breast cancer research, despite compelling evidence that alcohol is associated with a higher risk of breast cancer. breast cancer.

Calling on Congress for New Labels

This is not the first call for alcohol warning labels to be changed.

Several last year medical groups have filed a petition with Congress for a new cancer-specific warning label for all alcoholic beverages.

The petition is signed by the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO), the American Institute for Cancer Research and Breast Cancer Prevention Partners, along with the American Public Health Association, the Consumer Federation of America, the Center for Science in the Public Interest, Alcohol Justice and the US Alcohol Policy Alliance.

They advocate for a label that reads, “WARNING: According to the Surgeon General, consumption of alcoholic beverages can cause cancer, including breast and colon cancer.”

But that petition is still pending, said Melissa Maitin-Shepard, a policy expert at the American Institute for Cancer Research.

In addition, the institute is “working to advocate through multiple channels for the addition of a cancer warning label to alcoholic beverages,” she said. “Given the strong evidence linking alcohol use to at least six types of cancer — and low awareness of the link between alcohol and cancer — there is a tremendous need to educate the public about alcohol and cancer risks.”

Noelle LoConte, MD, associate professor of medicine at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and the lead author of the ASCO Statement on Alcohol and Cancer Riskstressed that there is no doubt that alcohol is carcinogenic and causes about 5% of cancers worldwide, and also that its use has increased during the pandemic.

“Initiatives that raise awareness around this issue could help generate more public support for policies that limit access to alcohol and thereby reduce the number of alcohol-related cancers,” she said. “In ASCO’s statement on alcohol and cancer, we recommend several key strategies to reduce high-risk alcohol consumption, including limiting young people’s access to alcohol, giving municipalities greater control over the density of alcohol outlets and outlets, and raising taxes on alcohol.”

But she also had a small critique on one point in the New England Journal of Medicine article. It shows an example chart in which stomach cancer is listed as caused by alcohol.

“But as of today, stomach cancer is not on the IARC [International Agency for Research on Cancer] list of alcohol-related cancers,” she said. “I think this brings up a critical point, which is that these warning labels should contain scientifically established facts.”