Would al­co­hol warn­ings work?


Al­co­hol health warn­ing la­bels on bot­tles and cans could help peo­ple drink less, though many New Zealan­ders re­main ‘‘delu­sional’’ about how bad their drink­ing is, ac­cord­ing to a re­searcher be­hind the world’s largest an­nual study into recre­ational drug use.

The 2018 Global Drug Sur­vey, which re­searched the drug­tak­ing habits of 130,000 peo­ple across 44 coun­tries, this year set out to find whether health warn­ing la­bels on al­co­hol would in­crease aware­ness of al­co­hol harm— whether peo­ple be­lieved the mes­sages, whether they were per­son­ally mean­ing­ful and whether they could in­flu­ence peo­ple’s at­ti­tudes about their drink­ing.

GDS pre­sented peo­ple with seven dif­fer­ent health warn­ings in text form only, with no sup­port­ing graphic, and a com­bi­na­tion of pos­i­tive and neg­a­tive mes­sag­ing to ad­dress the risks of ex­ces­sive drink­ing as well as the ben­e­fits of drink­ing less.

While the ma­jor­ity of Ki­wis sur­veyed be­lieved the in­for­ma­tion writ­ten on the warn­ings, it was for the most part un­likely to change their minds about what, or how much, they were drink­ing.

Al­co­hol is re­spon­si­ble for 4 per cent of the world’s global bur­den of dis­eases and is im­pli­cated in at least 60 health con­di­tions, in­clud­ing those that kill us most of­ten — cancer and heart dis­ease.

Sur­vey lead, ad­dic­tion medicine spe­cial­ist Pro­fes­sor Adam Win­stock says that, while New Zealan­ders have pretty good aware­ness of al­co­hol harms over­all, there are some glar­ing ar­eas of ig­no­rance.

Women un­der 25 - our most prob­lem­atic drinkers - were most likely to say the in­for­ma­tion about harm was new to them.

The fig­ures show 62.5 per cent of women un­der 25 did not know drink­ing less re­duced the risk of seven dif­fer­ent types of cancer, and al­most half (46.7 per cent) were un­aware that even peo­ple with heavy al­co­hol use can sig­nif­i­cantly re­duce the risk of harm by hav­ing two al­co­hol free days per week.

Around 40 per cent of peo­ple said they were un­aware al­co­hol of­fered lit­tle or no health ben­e­fits.

‘‘That’s the one New Zealan­ders want to hold on to, that a lit­tle bit of al­co­hol is good for you, but it’s just not true,’’ Win­stock said.

And al­most 1 in 3 peo­ple did not be­lieve that al­co­hol causes cancer.

Those who said the warn­ings would make them think about drink­ing less were most con­cerned by the mes­sages about calo­ries, cancer and heart dis­ease, in that or­der.

Some 14.2 per cent said the high num­ber of calo­ries in al­co­hol was the is­sue most rel­e­vant for them, par­tic­u­larly among women un­der 25.

De­spite the fact half of New Zealand’s vi­o­lent crimes are re­lated to al­co­hol, a whop­ping 45.3 per cent of peo­ple said the warn­ing about vi­o­lence was ‘‘to­tally ir­rel­e­vant’’.

Part of the prob­lem stems from New Zealand’s drink­ing cul­ture — think­ing we’re bet­ter drinkers than we are, Win­stock said.

The Al­co­hol Use Dis­or­der Iden­ti­fi­ca­tion Test (AU­DIT) mea­sures how harm­ful or haz­ardous a per­son’s al­co­hol use is. Peo­ple scor­ing a 20 or more war­rant eval­u­a­tion for al­co­hol de­pen­dence.

Nearly one third (32 per cent) of New Zealand drinkers who were very high risk - scor­ing more than 20 - thought their drink­ing was av­er­age or less than av­er­age.

‘‘Peo­ple are delu­sional about their drink­ing be­cause it keeps them feel­ing com­fort­able,’’ Win­stock says.

Al­co­hol warn­ing la­bels were not about stop­ping peo­ple drink­ing, but chal­leng­ing myths about al­co­hol we hold onto but which make us vul­ner­a­ble, he said.

‘‘Myths like, I drink a lot but so do all of my friends, or I come from a fam­ily of big drinkers and ev­ery­one has lived past 85.’’

If peo­ple knew about the risks, and the Govern­ment were ‘‘in peo­ple’s faces’’ about them, it would prompt a more mean­ing­ful in­ter­nal di­a­logue for a per­son about their own drink­ing, he says.

That 1 in 3 women un­der 25 would think about drink­ing less due to calo­ries and 1 in 4 would con­sider drink­ing less af­ter learn­ing about the risk of cancer from warn­ing la­bels was ‘‘huge’’.

‘‘It shows that there is a sec­tion of the New Zealand pop­u­la­tion that might well be will­ing to re­duce their con­sump­tion, even if only a lit­tle.

‘‘The al­co­hol in­dus­try is pow­er­ful. The truth on la­bels in big bold let­ters may not be good for busi­ness but it might be good for health.’’

The is­sue of com­pul­sory health warn­ings on al­co­hol has been de­bated in Par­lia­ment and by al­co­hol watch­dogs since the early 2000s.

In New Zealand, the Aus­tralia New Zealand Food Stan­dards Code gov­erns the re­quire­ment for con­sumer in­for­ma­tion on al­co­holic bev­er­ages, in­clud­ing any health warn­ings and health claims.

Cur­rently only one warn­ing la­bel ex­ists in New Zealand - that drink­ing while preg­nant can harm your un­born baby. La­belling prod­ucts with that warn­ing is purely vol­un­tary.

New Zealan­ders love a good drop. But would warn­ing la­bels, like on cig­a­rette pack­ets, make you think more about what - and how much - you’re drink­ing? Above, Pro­fes­sor Adam Win­stock.

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