Leading health experts and charities are calling for the government to take responsibility for labelling on alcohol products, as new research finds that the current system fails to provide consumers with adequate information to make healthy decisions about their purchases.

In the UK, alcohol producers are still not required by law to print calorie information on their alcoholic beverages: they are only required to show the strength of alcohol (ABV) and the container’s volume. Last month, the government announced that it will consult before the end of the year on the calorie issue, as part of its Obesity Strategy.

The alcohol industry claim that self-regulation is working and agreed to update labels to display the chief medical officers’ (CMO) weekly guideline – no more than 14 units of alcohol – by September 2019.

The Alcohol Health Alliance UK (AHA) and Alcohol Change UK examined labels on 424 alcohol products in shops across the UK to see whether labels provided the CMO weekly guideline and other essential information that would allow consumers to make informed choices about their purchases. Their research found that:

  • More than 70% of labels did not include the drinking guidelines; over three years after they were updated and after the deadline the industry agreed with the government
  • The industry-funded Portman Group styles itself as the alcohol industry’s ‘social responsibility body’ and ‘leader in best practice’ but their members were least likely to include the correct low-risk drinking guidelines: just 2% did so
  • More than half (56%) of labels included no nutritional information. 37% of labels listed only the calorie content of the container, and just 7% displayed a full nutritional information table
  • Nearly a quarter (24%) of labels surveyed contained misleading, out-of-date health information, such as the old UK guidelines or guidelines from other countries
  • Health information was often illegible, with the average height of the text displaying information about alcohol units measuring 2mm – well under the 3.5mm required to be easily readable

A Canadian study released in May found that alcohol warning labels, like warnings on packets of cigarettes, are effective tools in helping drinkers make informed decisions. The study found consumers exposed to the labels were 10% more likely to know about the link between alcohol and cancer and three times more likely to be aware of the low-risk drinking guidelines.

AHA UK chair professor Sir Ian Gilmore, said:

Alcohol labelling in this country is woefully inadequate and not fit for purpose if we wish to build a healthier society. It is disappointing but telling that members of the Portman Group – the body purporting to promote “best practice” on labelling of alcohol products – are the least likely to display basic health information. It is time that health labelling is required for all products.
The public must be granted the power to make informed decisions about their health by having access to prominent health warnings, information on ingredients, nutrition and alcohol content at the point of purchase. The industry’s reluctance to include this information on their products suggests profits are being put ahead of people’s health.

You can read the full report, ‘Drinking in the dark: How alcohol labelling fails consumers’, on the AHA UK website.