Alcohol: A case for warning labels

By Jennifer Bowden In Nutrition

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28th February, 2013 Leave a Comment
Alcohol - a case for warning labels

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QUESTION: The facts about alcohol and cancer in the October 27 Nutrition column were frightening – even a moderate amount is apparently too much – and I was left wondering what choice one had but to stop drinking alcohol. This challenges a practice that’s an enjoyable part of many people’s lives. How are other readers dealing with this? How have the medical profession and the alcohol industry responded?

ANSWER: Alcohol is the direct cause of one in 30 cancer deaths in the US, according to a recent study in the American Journal of Public Health. And many of these deaths were among what the alcohol industry euphemistically refers to as moderate drinkers or social drinkers: 26-35% of alcohol-attributable cancer deaths were of people who drank less than 20g of alcohol a day – up to 200ml of wine or a couple of cans of beer, in other words.

New Zealanders drink more alcohol per capita than Americans, and that’s cause for concern, particularly for women. Most alcohol-attributable cancer deaths in American women are from breast cancer. This is the most common cancer among New Zealand women, with one in nine diagnosed during their lifetime, and over 2500 new cases and 600 deaths annually. But, worryingly, the most notable changes in recent years have been the dramatic increases in the amount of alcohol consumed by young women and the frequency of their drinking. Will this result in an increase in breast cancer rates in coming years?

There’s also compelling evidence that alcohol causes cancer of the mouth, pharynx, larynx, oesophagus and colorectum.

“There is no safe threshold for alcohol and cancer risk,” according to US researchers, who say reducing consumption is an important and underemphasised prevention strategy.

Doug Sellman, director of the National Addiction Centre at the University of Otago, is disappointed by the lack of information New Zealanders have about the health risks of consuming alcohol. “Alcohol is a group 1 carcinogen, according to the World Health Organisation, and the alcohol industry continues to refuse to put health warnings to that account on the beverages.

“As consumers, we have the right to have the information and then we can make more informed choices. That’s why we need health warnings. It’s an ethical issue as much as anything else for the company to alert people to the potential downside.”

A recent Australian and New Zealand expert report on food labelling reached similar conclusions. “Labelling Logic” says there “are compelling reasons for applying labelling changes to alcohol in the light of the growing evidence relating to the short- and long-term adverse health effects of alcohol consumption.”

Namely, that “consumers should be provided with information about the health consequences of consuming excessive amounts of alcohol, as they are about consuming excessive amounts of caffeine or some other food substances”.

A poll of Australian consumers revealed most want health warning labels on alcoholic beverages, too.

But alcohol-industry stakeholders aren’t keen on mandatory warning labels. Their reasons, recorded in Labelling Logic, include, “additional domestic requirements for the labelling of alcoholic beverages may inhibit international trade”, and that “warning labels would be an unnecessary imposition on the industry”.

They also point to their voluntary addition of health warning labels to local products. However, a survey a year later found only 16% of Australian alcoholic beverages had warning labels and these weren’t highly visible.

The Australian and New Zealand health ministers ignored the expert panel’s recommendation to introduce mandatory health warnings on alcoholic beverages immediately and instead pledged more time and resources to investigate the effectiveness of warning labels.

They’ve also given the alcohol industry a two-year deadline to voluntarily add warnings about the danger of alcohol during pregnancy – alcohol consumption during pregnancy is the leading cause of non-hereditary mental retardation.

We know that sun causes skin cancer and that smoking causes lung cancer, but why doesn’t every New Zealander know the true health risks of drinking alcohol? When it comes to alcohol, the logic can be fuzzy.

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Email:, or write to “Nutrition”, c/o Listener, PO Box 90783, Victoria St West, Auckland 1142.

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