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.