Alcohol warning labels about cancer risk a Canadian first

UPDATE [Feb 15, 2018]: Yukon Government announces project will continue, but without cancer labels

After discussions with the researchers, national brand representatives and other stakeholders, the Government of Yukon is inviting researchers to resume the Northern Territories Alcohol Study.

The study will use two labels to educate consumers: one that shows a standard drink size, and a second that provides low-risk drinking guidelines. The health-warning label about cancer, introduced in November of last year, will no longer be part of the study.

Starting today, researchers will be conducting on-site surveys in the Northwest Territories and Yukon to assess the results gathered to date and to re-establish a baseline. The revised research plan includes connecting with participants who were recruited in 2017, as well as surveying customers at random for the next four to six weeks.

The study, led by Dr. Erin Hobin of Public Health Ontario with Dr. Timothy Stockwell and Kate Vallance of the University of Victoria’s Canadian Institute for Substance Use Research, will conclude in June – with results to be released in 2019.

Read the Yukon Government's media release.

UPDATE [Dec 22, 2017]: This project has been suspended due to industry push-back

Concerns from national alcohol brand owners have prompted the Yukon Liquor Corp. to stop affixing warning labels to all bottles and cans being sold in the Whitehorse liquor store, the [Whitehorse Daily] Star has learned – at least for the time being.

“There’s a large range of concerns,” Patch Groenewegen, a liquor corporation spokesperson, said in an interview this morning.

They centre around “legislative authority, label placement and trademark infringement, defamation and damages related to messages on labels affixed to brand-owner products without consent,” she said.

Read the full article at the Whitehorse Daily Star

News and comment related to the suspension of this project:

1. Globe & Mail Health columnist André Picard calls the removal of the labels "shameful" [Jan 2, 2018]:

Research published earlier this year in the Journal of Substance Use and Misuse found that provincial liquor boards put far more effort (and money) into marketing than they do into health messaging.

That is a perversity in a country where alcohol misuse costs the economy $14.6-billion annually in lost productivity, direct health costs and enforcement.

Bring on the bright-yellow stickers – and with them, recognition that, while alcohol can be used responsibly, it is a serious public-health issue.

2. CISUR Director Tim Stockwell has commented on the industry interference on CBC national radio show As It Happens [Jan 2, 2018] and in a National Post article [Jan 2, 2018]:

They’re trying to keep consumers in the dark about things that people want to know. I’ve always wondered … why is it consumers don’t get that (alcohol-health) information? Well, here’s the answer: governments are afraid to give it. They get blocked. At various levels, the lobbyists are very effective.

3. A Canadian Press article [Jan 3, 2018] cites "Thomas Greenfield, a leading scientist investigating the impacts of liquor on human health," who "says warning labels in the United States have increased awareness around drunk driving and drinking while pregnant."

4. The New York Times [Jan 6, 2018] interviewed Stockwell and others about the project, including law professor and alcohol and drug policy expert Robert Solomon, who "dismissed the idea of trademark or defamation lawsuits as 'without merit.'"

5. The Institute for Alcohol Studies blog [Jan 10, 2018] features a guest post from CISUR communications officer Amanda Farrell-Low about the media coverage the project has received.

Read our original news story about the project below [Nov 22, 2017]:

photo of CISUR's new alcohol warning labels affixed to bottles in the Whitehorse liquor store
CISUR's alcohol warning labels affixed to products in the Whitehorse liquor store. Credit: Kate Vallance

Starting today, warning labels cautioning consumers about the link between alcohol use and an increased risk of breast and colon cancer will be applied to all bottles and cans sold at the Whitehorse liquor store. This specific labelling, part of the Northern Territories Alcohol study led by the University of Victoria’s Canadian Institute for Substance Use Research (CISUR, formerly CARBC) and Public Health Ontario (PHO), is a first for Canada.

We commend the Yukon Liquor Corporation for having the courage to be the first jurisdiction in Canada to provide more detailed labels for its residents

CISUR director Tim Stockwell,
one of the project’s co-investigators

Researchers say that findings from this study will provide results that government and other public health practitioners can use to inform current and future alcohol harm reduction strategies in communities in Yukon as well as in other jurisdictions in Canada.     

The comprehensive labels give details of Canada’s low-risk drinking guidelines as well as cancer risks. 

Read the full UVic media release

Additional Information

CISUR-led research studies on alcohol labelling:

News coverage: