Alcohol labelling includes product information, nutritional information, drinking guidelines and health warnings. Alongside other strategies, alcohol labelling is recommended by the World Health Organization to inform consumers about product information and the health risks associated with alcohol use.

In the UK and elsewhere, alcohol labelling requirements are under discussion. In the UK, only very basic information such as strength and country of origin is required on alcohol packaging. Whereas labelling with standard drinks, drinking guidelines and other information that may influence consumption is voluntarily self-regulated by the industry. Two recent reports have examined the current status of alcohol labelling. In 2020, the Alcohol Health Alliance published a review of 424 alcohol product labels, finding 71% of products did not contain up-to-date information on low-risk drinking guidelines. A couple of weeks ago, the Portman Group published their own review of 400 alcohol products, finding that 21% did not include the up-to-date low-risk drinking guidelines.

Differences between these two surveys aside, we can be confident that there is a significant proportion of alcohol products not labelled with the low-risk drinking guidelines, which have been in place for almost six years. There is a lot of room for improvement on current alcohol labelling, and previous studies and opinion polling in adults show it is also something that has public support.

In our new research, published in the peer-reviewed journal Alcohol and Alcoholism, we investigated support for product information and health messaging on alcohol packaging among UK adolescents. We used the 2019 UK Youth Alcohol Policy Survey, an online cross-sectional survey among 3,388 adolescents aged 11-19.

We found support was high for all forms of labelling we asked about:*

  • Strength of the product i.e. ABV (79% of participants)
  • Number of alcohol units in the product (73%)
  • Weekly drinking guidelines (71%)
  • Number of servings equal to weekly guidelines (70%)
  • Number of calories (60%)
  • Health warnings (e.g., not drinking while pregnant) (79%)
  • Alcohol-related health conditions (70%)

* ‘strongly agree’ or ‘somewhat agree’ that alcohol packaging and advertising should display this information

We also analysed how support for labelling differed by adolescents’ drinking status. Higher-risk drinkers were more supportive of improved product information than lower-risk drinkers, but they were less supportive of health-related messaging. This suggests higher-risk drinking adolescents may seek product information and messaging that informs their drinking choices, but are less enthusiastic about the kinds of information that could deter drinking.

Our findings bring young people’s voices into the discussion on alcohol labelling, adding to the evidence base about high public support for improved labelling in adults. Adolescents in the UK are among the heaviest drinkers in Europe, so it is important they are considered in public policy decisions on alcohol.

In terms of upcoming decisions, a UK Government consultation on calorie labelling for alcohol is expected soon. Both the AHA and Portman Group surveys mentioned earlier found calorie labels are present in less than half of products surveyed. A new IAS briefing summarises the evidence on calorie labelling and other types of labelling beyond calories, and points to PHE’s 2016 evidence review that the evidence supports a statutory approach to labelling, in contrast to the current voluntary and patchy approach.

Written by Dr Sadie Boniface, Head of Research at IAS, and Snigdha Peddireddy, PhD student at Emory University Rollins School of Public Health.

All IAS Blogposts are published with the permission of the author. The views expressed are solely the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of the Institute of Alcohol Studies.