Industry rejects drink health warnings

Drinks industry leaders have rejected calls from a group representing the medical profession for legislation to introduce US-style health warnings on alcohol packaging.

The call was made by the Faculty of Public Health which sets standards for public health professionals. It wants to see the debate on the impact of alcohol on society shift from public order issues to the health of the individual.

But it distanced itself from reports that it wanted graphic warnings similar to those already in place for tobacco products.

A spokeswoman said: “We’re not saying there’s any need for graphic images of diseased livers at the moment, although that could come if there was evidence they worked.”

She said the body sees text health warnings as a way of swaying public opinion in favour of minimum unit pricing of alcohol, which it backs.

Professor Mark Bellis, FPH’s official spokesman on alcohol, added: “The health messages that are most important for people to see are the ones that drinks manufacturers are least likely to want to put on their products.”

The call was rejected by Henry Ashworth, chief executive of the Portman Group and co-chair of the Responsibility Deal Alcohol Network.

“No other European country is doing anything like this,” said Ashworth. “Legislation would need to involve the European Commission and could take years to achieve, if ever. This does not seem like a sensible approach.”

He said health warnings were “entirely disproportionate” and added: “Voluntary labelling is well on track now through the Responsibility Deal where industry and government are working together to provide consumers with the Chief Medical Officers’ guidelines and other health-related information.”

Nigel Pollard, head of UK external communications at Heineken, added: “We believe that the current industry agreement to provide consumer advice and information in a standard format on bottles and cans is effective and now widely understood by drinkers. 

“While there is always room for improvement, alcohol is different to tobacco and the emphasis should be on providing good quality information rather than disproportionate shock tactics.”

But Bellis at the FPH said that there was widespread ignorance of the potential harm from excessive alcohol consumption.

He added: “The evidence linking alcohol to over 60 medical conditions is unarguable, so we need factual, not sensational, warnings to help the public understand the risks.

“People don’t realise that drink is associated with a whole range of health harms and has potential long-term implications.

“When people think about the dangers associated with alcohol, they are more likely to think of the problems caused by binge drinking rather than breast cancer.”

The FPH has suggested a range of warnings it would like to see on alcohol packaging (see box).

Bellis added: “These health warnings would educate the public and give them key information before they decide to buy a can or bottle of alcohol.”

The FPH also favours legislative control of marketing and promotions.

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