While there is no safe level for alcohol consumption in terms of health harms, governments introduce low-risk guidelines to help increase awareness and reduce the harm alcohol causes to people who consume it.
In the UK, low-risk alcohol consumption guidelines state no more than 14 units of alcohol per week with alcohol-free days in between.
The problem is that many UK citizens are unaware of these guidelines. As per the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR), less than one in four (8% to 25%) of the population know what the guidelines say. More than 10 million adults consume more alcohol than the weekly level of the guidelines.
Even if people were aware of the guidelines, another problem arises in terms of understanding how much alcohol is actually in one unit. Without knowing this people cannot calculate the units of alcohol to help them limit and reduce their alcohol consumption.
In the UK, one unit equals 10ml of pure alcohol. However, different alcohol products have different alcohol content and container sizes. For example wine generally has a lower alcohol content than liquor and there are different sized bottles of wine. This confuses consumers as to how many units are in a standard serving, such as a glass, and a full container, such as a bottle.
Since the existing industry standard label does not include the low-risk guidelines at all, it does not help citizens to make better choices for their health.
Manufacturers are not required to display any health warning, despite alcohol being the leading risk factor for premature death and disability in 15- to 49-year-olds,” said Lucy Holmes, Director of Research and Policy, Alcohol Change UK, as per NIHR.
The best we can expect is voluntary inclusion of the Chief Medical Officer’s guidelines text. However, 2020 research by the Alcohol Health Alliance found the guidelines were displayed on just 29% of labels.”Lucy Holmes, Director of Research and Policy, Alcohol Change UK
A solution to raise consumer awareness
The researchers of the study aimed to find a simple way to get rid of this confusion.
Researchers carried out an online survey to compare six enhanced label designs against the industry standard. The enhanced labels all included the size and number of units in a serving (such as a glass of wine) or container (the bottle). They also related the units to the weekly limit.
More than 7,000 volunteers each saw one type of label on various alcohol products (beer, wine, liquor). 500 participants also saw a health warning.
The study found that all the enhanced label designs improved knowledge of the guidelines compared to the industry standard label. The best-performing designs showed a picture of containers, servings, or a pie-chart with the guidelines in a separate statement underneath. Knowledge of guidelines more than doubled (increased from 22% to around 50%) with these best-performing labels.
The researchers call for alcohol labels to change according to the best performing labels in this study: an explicit guideline statement, ideally under a picture.
The evidence is strong enough to implement. Labels which state the Low Risk [Alcohol Use] Guidelines on labels improved awareness,” said Natalie Gold, Deputy Head of Behavioural Insights, Public Health England, and Senior Research Fellow, Department of Philosophy, University of Oxford, as per NIHR.Natalie Gold, Deputy Head of Behavioural Insights, Public Health England, and Senior Research Fellow, Department of Philosophy, University of Oxford
Additionally the researchers recommend that interventions to improve people’s understanding of a ‘unit’ may help them accurately track their alcohol use. The researchers stress that the risk of health conditions increases with more alcohol. The guidelines are not a threshold for ‘safe’ alcohol use, nor are they a weekly ‘target’.
People have a right to accurate information and clear advice about alcohol and its health risks. The Government has a responsibility to ensure this information is provided in a clear and open way,” said Ms. Gold, as per NIHR.Natalie Gold, Deputy Head of Behavioural Insights, Public Health England, and Senior Research Fellow, Department of Philosophy, University of Oxford
The labels alone are not enough to help people change their behavior regarding alcohol use and protect them from its harms. A comprehensive package of alcohol policy solutions is needed for change. However, the public has a right to access accurate, clear information about products and alcohol labeling can fulfill that right.
Government needs to place mandatory requirements on alcohol manufacturers to display accessible information, on a par with other food and drinks, based on sound evidence of what works,” said Ms Holmes, as per NIHR.
This study shows that altering the format and content of labels can improve consumer understanding of health information and the risks of having alcohol above the low-risk guidelines, and we welcome its contribution to the growing evidence base about alcohol labelling.”Lucy Holmes, Director of Research and Policy, Alcohol Change UK