New research by Alcohol Change UK and the Alcohol Health Alliance exposes how Big Alcohol has failed in their labeling self-regulation. According to the report the current labeling does not contain information to help consumers make informed choices. The organizations call for mandatory comprehensive labeling in the United Kingdom…

In this research, Alcohol Change UK and a team from the Alcohol Health Alliance consisting of member organizations across the UK measured and recorded over 400 labels on alcohol products available in supermarkets and shops.

The researchers looked at eight elements as well as the size of the text and symbols to see if they were legible. The elements were as follows:

  • The Chief Medical Officers’ low-risk drinking guidelines,
  • Number of alcohol units per container and per serving,
  • A pregnancy warning,
  • A warning which highlights the health risks of alcohol consumption,
  • Ingredients,
  • Nutritional information (including calories),
  • A warning about driving under the influence of alcohol, and
  • An under-18 age warning.

The most popular alcohol products were surveyed at multiple locations. The data was analysed to see if there were patterns by beverage type, manufacturer type and across industry membership bodies.

Why evaluate labeling now?

The reason for evaluating alcohol industry self-regulation in the area of labeling is to examine the effectiveness of self-regulation in the absence of any legal requirement to include vital health-related information on alcohol product labels. This situation has led to various types of labels. Different sectors of the alcohol industry decide to include or omit certain elements. Even worse is that when health information is included in labeling it is often inaccurate or outdated. There is no cross-industry consensus or enforcement. The research reveals evidence on how widespread the alcohol labeling problem is in the UK.

Other food products in Great Britain include information on ingredients, nutritional values and health risks. However alcohol containers only include alcohol volume, bottle size and allergens on labels. A carton of milk will have more information than a bottle of alcohol – a substance which is harmful for health.

Clearly alcohol labeling self-regulation impedes consumers’ rights to know what they are consuming.

We as consumers have a right to know what is in the products we buy and their health risks. Why should alcohol be any different?” states Alcohol Change UK.

Alcohol Change UK

Another reason is the timing of this research which was conducted in August 2020. This is a vital time to conduct a study on labeling in the UK because when the UK’s Chief Medical Officers updated their low risk alcohol use guidelines in 2016, the alcohol industry’s self-appointed “social responsibility” front group the Portman Group agreed with Government that it had three years to put these on labels – meaning a deadline of September 2019. 

What did the study find?

70% +
Labels did not include the 2016 low risk alcohol use guidelines
It has been over three years since the guideline was updated and the industry agreed with the government to update their labeling.

The following figures are the key results of the study:

  • More than 70% of labels did not include the low risk alcohol use guidelines, over three years after they were updated and way past the deadline the alcohol industry had agreed with the Government.
  • The industry-funded Portman Group called themselves a “social responsibility body” but only 2% of their members included the correct low-risk alcohol use guidelines.
  • More than half (56%) of labels included no nutritional information. 37% of labels listed only the calorie content on 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 alcohol use guidelines or alcohol use guidelines from other countries.
  • Health information was often illegible. Average height of the text displaying information about alcohol units were 2mm which is below the 3.5mm required to be easily readable.
  • There were inconsistencies in labeling even between the same product sold at different locations, with some showing updated alcohol use guidelines and others showing old guidelines.

Call on the government to update inadequate labeling

It is clear from the evidence revealed by this new study that alcohol industry self-regulation has failed in updating labeling in accordance with the 2016 low risk alcohol use guidelines. The labeling is also inadequate or inaccurate in providing health information needed for consumers to make informed decisions about products.

Alcohol Change UK, and organizations in the Alcohol Health Alliance (AHA) call on the UK government to implement comprehensive mandatory alcohol labeling. The Government has recently taken action to include caloric information on alcohol product labels. However, this is only one aspect of labeling, there are other factors such as low risk alcohol use guidelines and health risks warnings which must be included in alcohol product labels.

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 and information on ingredients, nutrition and alcohol content at the point of purchase,” said Prof Sir Ian Gilmore, Chairman of Alcohol Health Alliance, as per BBC.

The industry’s reluctance to include this information on their products suggests profits are being put ahead of people’s health.”

Prof Sir Ian Gilmore, Chairman, Alcohol Health Alliance

A series of studies published in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs in 2020, supports that when alcohol bottles come with conspicuous labels providing information on the risks of alcohol consumption or alcohol use guidelines, people are better informed about alcohol’s harms and may cut down their alcohol use.

One of the studies in the series by Schoueri-Mychasiw and colleagues 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 alcohol use guidelines.

Despite the evidence, and the updated guidelines by the chief medical officer in 2016, the alcohol industry has shown they will not willingly adopt comprehensive labeling.

We have even seen new products come onto the market in recent months that don’t provide the Chief Medical Officers’ low risk guidelines three years on,” said Alison Douglas, Chief Executive of Alcohol Focus Scotland, as per BBC.

Alison Douglas, Chief Executive, Alcohol Focus Scotland

The Scottish government committed in its 2018 Alcohol Framework to consider legal changes if alcohol producers did not include the low-risk alcohol use guidelines on products by the UK government’s deadline of September 2019.

The UK government has consistently failed to regulate. It is now time for Scottish government to use its powers to set out labelling requirements for alcoholic products in law,” said Ms Douglas, as per BBC.

Alison Douglas, Chief Executive, Alcohol Focus Scotland


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