Brightly coloured, highly-visible warning labels could give people sober second thoughts at the liquor store, according to new research conducted in the Yukon.
On Monday, the Canadian Institute for Substance Research (CISUR) at the University of Victoria published a series of articles in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs.
The articles detail findings from the federally-funded Northern Territories Alcohol Labels Study that began in Whitehorse in late November 2017. They suggest enhanced labels on cans and bottles of alcohol could help curb alcohol consumption and increase awareness of health messaging.
“We were surprised at how effective the labels were,” said Tim Stockwell, director of CISUR and one of the study’s lead authors.
Researchers applied around 300,000 labels to 98 percent of alcohol bottles and cans at Whitehorse’s liquor store. One label warned of links between alcohol and cancer, another detailed standard drink sizes, and a third gave information on low-risk drinking guidelines.
The two liquor stores in Yellowknife were used as controls in the study.
An analysis of sales data found that sales per capita of labelled products dropped by 6.6 percent while sales of unlabelled products increased by 6.9 percent.
Two papers, based on surveys of 2,049 customers at the Whitehorse and Yellowknife liquor stores, found the labels helped inform people about reducing health risks when consuming alcohol.
One study found those exposed to the new labels were 10 percent more likely to remember the link between alcohol and cancer. The second found they were three times more likely to be aware of low-risk drinking guidelines and 50 percent more likely to remember standard drink sizes.
“We do this research because we want to make a difference,” Stockwell said.
“There’s really a duty to inform people about risks with their health … so the idea was to help people make informed choices about their drinking.”
Stockwell said previous research had suggested existing labels on alcohol containers have little effect on consumer behaviour.
In the Yukon, alcohol containers already display warning labels about drinking during pregnancy. In the NWT, labels also warn about the risks of drinking and driving.
Stockwell said the labels used in the study were bigger, brighter, multicoloured, and some had graphics.
Alcohol industry fought against cancer labels
The study gained a lot of attention due to challenges it faced.
After launching to much fanfare as the first study on warning labels linking alcohol to cancer, the work was halted by the Yukon Liquor Corporation after just four weeks.
John Streiker, the minister responsible for the corporation, cited legal concerns after Canadian alcohol organizations complained about the stickers.
Some said the cancer warnings were “alarmist and misleading” while others alleged the study’s researchers were prejudiced and raised concerns that the labels infringed on their intellectual property rights.
The concerns of Canadian alcohol organizations put the study on hold for several months. Kate Vallance/University of Victoria.
“They all went berserk and made complaints, and sent emails, and made phone calls to the Yukon Government,” Stockwell said.
“I was expecting it sooner. I was amazed that we even were able to have the labels put on for one month.”
While the study had initially planned to rotate the three labels over eight months, it was put on ice until February when it was relaunched without the cancer warning label. The study concluded in July 2018. Stockwell said the changes “watered down” the study.
“I think our study shows just how hard it is at the moment to tell the truth about alcohol’s effect in Canada,” he said.
“That would apply in almost any country, but the [steps industry took] to shut us down and keep consumers in the dark were quite remarkable.”
According to the World Health Organization, alcohol is a risk factor for cancer of the mouth, throat, voice box, oesophagus, liver, colon, and breast, and that risk increases the more you drink.
The Canadian Cancer Society estimates 10,700 Canadians were diagnosed with cancer linked to alcohol consumption in 2015.
NWT government reviewing study
Stockwell said the research findings are applicable across northern Canada, where there are higher rates of alcohol consumption. He noted South Korea already has cancer warning labels on alcohol containers and the Republic of Ireland is looking into introducing them.
“I think somewhere, somebody, this research will help support them implementing this kind of labelling,” he said.
“No one’s been able to do a study like this before. It’s kind-of rare to get a natural experiment in which only one area introduces a policy and you can do control.”
Peter Maher, the NWT’s director of liquor operations, says the Northwest Territories Liquor and Cannabis Commission is currently reviewing the study’s findings.
The commission “promotes a healthy and responsible attitude towards alcohol and cannabis,” Maher told Cabin Radio by email, “and is committed to providing consumers with the information they need to make healthy choices about these products.”