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Alcohol's Warning Label is Outdated: Here's Why It Matters


Wooden shelf with alcohol bottles and wine glasses

Warning labels. They’re on everything from TV ads for prescriptions to packs of cigarettes and our food and household items. They serve as our silent gatekeepers, guiding us through the potential dangers that lurk within the products we consume. But have you ever stopped to consider just how much these labels influence your decisions?


Consider alcohol – a substance that has managed to weave itself into the very fabric of our societies over the centuries. Its current warning label cautions against drinking during pregnancy or operating heavy machinery, and offers a vague hint at potential “health problems”. But is this really sufficient to enable you to make an informed decision?



Danger! Danger Will Robinson!

There are many regulations that require products to make certain disclosures. For prescription drugs, it’s that long terrifying list of symptoms (sometimes including death!) that could occur with this medication. There are also warnings about choking hazards, flammability, and hazardous substances on a wide variety of everyday products. And cigarettes have had warning labels since 1969, and the FDA is now working to expand the warnings to include lesser-known but still serious health risks.


Somewhat newer to the scene, chain restaurants must now disclose the calorie counts. This is not a warning per se but is still meant to inform the consumer about the true nature of the product. We may already intuitively know that a cheeseburger and fries is unlikely to be the healthiest item on the menu, but disclosures like calorie counts open our eyes to things we were perhaps wholly unaware of. Take the Barbecue Ranch Chicken Salad at Cheesecake Factory for example. It’s a salad right- lettuce, tomatoes, corn, black beans, grilled chicken; a nice healthy option.


Except it clocks in at nearly 2,000 calories! And yes, Cheesecake Factory portions are insane, but that’s true for all of their dishes. You could literally order their mac & cheese burger–a burger covered in fried mac and cheese balls and topped with cheese sauce–with a side of fries, for about the same number of calories.


Now, if you still want that 2,000-calorie salad, go for it! But at least you know what you’re getting and can’t delude yourself that it’s actually healthy. For medicines, knowing the possible side effects means you and your doctor can make an informed decision about whether the risks outweigh the benefits.



So What About Alcohol’s Warning Label?

With alcohol, the only disclosure we get is a warning about drinking alcohol during pregnancy, not to operate heavy machinery, and that alcohol “may cause health problems”, without actually expanding on what those health problems are. Oh, and we’re told to “drink responsibly”. As if the problem isn’t how alcohol affects the body, the number of deaths it causes a year, what it does to our livers, etc. If you have a problem or a negative consequence, it’s because YOU didn’t drink responsibly.


And yet alcohol has been classified as a carcinogen since 1988. In fact, it is in the same group (the highest risk class) as tobacco and asbestos. And many know that it causes liver damage, to say nothing of the number of fatalities that result when people drive under the influence of alcohol (about one person every 45 minutes). But the label hasn’t changed in over 30 years, despite the growing body of evidence of alcohol’s harms.



The Fight For An Updated Warning Label

Let’s face it. Powerful industries tend to defend their turf, and at $283.8 billion dollars a year, the alcohol industry is no exception. It stands to reason that the alcohol industry would see a more accurate warning label as a threat to sales or consumer perception. For consumers, alcohol has long held a special place in our societies and traditions. It’s woven into our culture, celebrated in our rituals, and glamorized in our media. And for so many decades, the industry has been able to get away with what I will generously call the bare minimum.


But this might be changing. In October 2020, 8 consumer and public health groups submitted a petition to have the warning label on alcohol updated to include the well-documented link between alcohol and cancer, the effect of which remains to be seen.

Other countries have either already made the leap or are planning on it. For example, Ireland recently passed a law to require alcoholic beverage labels to warn about the risk of cancer. Canada even did a real-world experiment to see how such updated warning labels affected consumer behavior, but backed off under pressure from the alcohol industry. We shall see whether the U.S. will eventually follow in what appears to be a growing trend.



The Right To Information

Warning labels aren’t just about scaring people away; they serve a purpose that goes beyond fear-mongering. We’re so often exposed to alcohol consumption in a wide range of social settings, fostering a sense of normalcy around it. However, understanding the risks associated with alcohol can truly empower people to prioritize their well-being. With transparent information, we can make an informed decision about whether or not alcohol fits into our lives.


Do I believe that an updated warning is sufficient to cause most people to change their behavior? No. We sometimes turn a blind eye to risks, especially those we repeatedly encounter or those that we believe provide a greater benefit than the risks.


But that’s our prerogative. It is up to the individual to decide their best course of action. But we also deserve to know what it truly is that we are putting in our bodies. You deserve to know what the possible outcomes are. You deserve the power to make fully informed decisions.

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Marci Rossi

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