Why Alcohol Should Carry Warning Labels

Alcohol caution tape
Photo by gerenme/iStockPhoto.com

Lots of products carry warning labels, and for good reason. Why doesn’t alcohol carry warning labels? Is it time to change that in order to prevent the growth of alcohol-related harm?

The concept of warning labels is a simple one. When an item carries some risk in its use or consumption, it is affixed with a warning label so the user/consumer can see that there is some degree of hazard in using or consuming that item.

Here are some things which carry warning labels on them:

  • Unhealthy foods
  • Power tools
  • Cigarettes
  • Car parts
  • Prescription drugs
  • Cleaning products

Alcohol is the third leading cause of preventable death in the United States. Why don’t alcohol bottles have warning labels on them? And should they?

Alcohol Warning Labels – Could They Work?

Warning labels are a simple, cost-effective way of clearly stating a message of caution on the very object that an individual is about to use or consume. Research has shown that warning labels are effective, and a similar strategy for warning labels on alcohol could help prevent alcohol misuse.

Canadian researchers began a project in 2017 to determine if their country’s cigarette warning techniques could be similarly efficacious on alcohol products. The researchers affixed about 300,000 highly colorful, visible warning labels to 98 percent of alcohol containers in the Yukon Territory's largest liquor store. Coincidentally, the Yukon also has Canada's highest rate of alcohol use.

Almost immediately after the warning labels were applied to bottles and cans of alcohol, the liquor store’s sales fell by six percent as compared to stores where alcohol products were not labeled. Furthermore, patrons who did purchase alcohol from that store were later surveyed and were found to:

  • Be ten percent more likely to recall the link between alcohol and cancer (mentioned on the bottle’s warning label).
  • Be three times more likely to recall Canada’s low-risk drinking guidelines (also mentioned on the bottle’s warning label).
  • Be fifty percent more likely to remember daily low-risk drinking limits (also specified on the bottle’s warning label).

The Canadian researchers recommended that alcohol warning labels contain three key messages. These are:

  • Health risk information associated with alcohol.
  • Low-risk drinking guidelines.
  • The number of standard drinks that are contained in each bottle or can.

If the U.S. implemented a strategy like this, alcohol misuse statistics would likely drop considerably.

“Despite the best efforts of Canada's alcohol-industry lobbyists to shut down our study and keep consumers in the dark, we found evidence the warning labels helped drinkers in Yukon to be better informed about alcohol's health risks, and prompted many to cut down their drinking…”

One of the lead Canadian researchers, Tim Stockwell, a director at the University of Victoria, had this to say about the findings. “Despite the best efforts of Canada's alcohol-industry lobbyists to shut down our study and keep consumers in the dark, we found evidence the warning labels helped drinkers in Yukon to be better informed about alcohol's health risks, and prompted many to cut down their drinking. This is an especially vital public health intervention now, as we see people at risk of increasing their alcohol intake as they isolate at home during the COVID-19 outbreak.”

Cigarettes and Warning Labels

Not only is the implementation of warning labels on alcohol containers simply common sense logic, but there is a legitimate historical precedent of this being a workable approach. The application of warning labels on cigarette packaging has been proven to help deter use, especially among adolescents and young adults.

One study by the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids found that, if graphic warnings were used on cigarette packaging (illustrations, photographs, visual content, etc.), the U.S. would see the prevention of roughly five to eight million people who wouldn't end up smoking (who otherwise would have).

Because pictorial-based warnings have been so effective in Canada and other countries, the U.S. Surgeon General strongly suggests that cigarette warning labels take on a whole new look to become even more useful.

Quoting the Surgeon General from a March 2020 report, “The evidence is sufficient to infer that large, pictorial health warnings increase smokers’ knowledge about the health harms of smoking, interest in quitting, and quit attempts and decrease smoking prevalence.”

Why not create a similar campaign for warning labels for alcohol products too? There’s already compelling reason to believe that doing so would be highly effective in curbing alcohol consumption, especially among young people.

Alcohol’s Harm – Why Warning Labels are a Step in the Right Direction

Woman is looking at alcohol
Photo by Viktoriia Hnatiuk/iStockPhoto.com

Because alcohol consumption is so universally accepted in this country, people often don’t grant credence to the very real and very serious harm that alcohol has on the American population. Here are some of the statistics:

About 86 percent of the adult population of the United States engages in some form of alcohol use. About 14 million Americans meet the criteria for alcohol addiction.

In the U.S., about 88,000 people die from alcohol-related causes every year. The only preventable causes of death that claim more lives than alcohol are smoking and obesity.

It’s not always an alcohol-related health malady that leads to alcohol deaths. Sadly, alcohol-impaired driving fatalities are all too common in the U.S., with about 10,000 people dying from drunk driving accidents every year. And as if alcohol deaths were not bad enough, drunk driving accidents often claim the lives of other people on the road who were not drinking.

The economic burden of alcohol misuse on the United States is considerable. The U.S. spends about $249 billion each year on addressing alcohol problems, be these costs in the form of lost workplace productivity, medical expenses, cleaning up collateral damage, crime prevention efforts, etc.

For the American family, alcohol addiction is no small problem. About one in ten American children grow up with at least one alcohol-abusing parent. When a child grows up with an alcoholic for a parent, that experience has potentially untold harm on that individual’s upbringing.

Underage drinking is also a considerable problem in the U.S., making the need for warning labels on alcohol bottles all the more pressing. About four million American adolescents and young adults (between the ages of 12 and 20), binge drink at least once per month. Furthermore, close to one million youngsters meet the criteria for chronic alcohol addiction.

Not only is young-adult and adolescent drinking a growing problem, but the health implications of underage people drinking alcohol are also considerable. This is not just an issue of behavior, judgment, and drinking while driving concerns (though all of those concerns are justified). There are actual biological risks when young people drink. Research has found that alcohol consumption during one’s formative years (up to one’s early to mid-20s), can interfere with brain development and can increase the risk for developing alcohol addiction.

Helping a Loved One Who is Addicted to Alcohol

There is no doubt that there is a risk present in misusing alcohol. And alcohol warning labels can help prevent that risk. But if someone you care about is already abusing alcohol, the best option is to seek alcohol treatment. If your loved one is drinking to excess and cannot stop, be sure to get them help at an alcohol rehab today.




After working in addiction treatment for several years, Ren now travels the country, studying drug trends and writing about addiction in our society. Ren is focused on using his skill as an author and counselor to promote recovery and effective solutions to the drug crisis. Connect with Ren on LinkedIn.