Alcohol labelling policies: most countries lagging behind in promoting healthier choices
According to a new report, labelling of alcoholic beverages is not consistent or even considered in many countries in the WHO European Region. The new Health Evidence Network (HEN) synthesis report on alcohol labelling across the Region is the first systematic study that covers the different ways countries label alcoholic beverages and sets out policy options for authorities to consider.
Consumers have the right to know
Labelling of alcoholic beverages, a WHO-recommended practice, is not mandatory in many countries of the Region. This lack of critical information is concerning. Consumers deserve to know the contents of alcoholic beverages and the possible risks of drinking them. These are minimum requirements for making informed decisions.
This is particularly important in the European Region, which has the world’s highest levels of alcohol consumption, the highest proportion of alcohol use disorders and the most alcohol-attributable deaths in the population – around 10% of deaths from all causes. In 2016, alcohol consumption was the cause of over 900 000 deaths in the Region and about 3 million deaths worldwide.
Alcohol consumption increases the risk of cancer, stroke, heart disease and communicable diseases, and weakens the immune system. Moreover, heavy use of alcohol increases the risk of acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS), one of the most severe complications of COVID-19. Alcohol is also associated with injuries, violence, and a range of mental health disorders including depression and anxiety.
Non-European Union countries: stricter rules for the industry
“The HEN report reveals that labelling practices in countries that have allowed the industry to self-regulate their labelling policies are, overall, poor, not providing enough information for consumers,” said Carina Ferreira-Borges, Manager of the Alcohol and Illicit Drugs Programme at WHO/Europe.
Policy considerations for the development of successful labelling legislation should address health information, ingredients and nutritional information; ensure regulated message presentation; and be independently monitored and evaluated.
According to the HEN report, non-European Union countries meet the recommendations made in the WHO discussion paper on policy options for alcohol labelling in more than one third of cases (36%, 8 countries in total). But only one European Union country is fully compliant with the same recommendations.
“There is much to be done to get the alcohol labelling policies in the WHO European Region in line with WHO-advised practices. Still, there are some positive examples,” added Carina Ferreira-Borges. “Non-European Union states tend to implement stricter rules. Besides this, some of them have already adopted a multinational law framework on labelling that the European Union still does not have. It’s a fact that policy-makers can bring a much-needed change that can greatly benefit people’s health.”
Currently, only 17% of European Member States have laws that demand alcohol producers to include ingredients, nutritional values and health information on labels at the same time. A total of 40% have some legislation on ingredient listing, 28% have laws on health information labelling or warnings on alcohol products, and 19% have some legislation on inclusion of nutritional values.
This study highlights the need for changes to pictogram currently used on alcohol packaging in France. Our results show that recent changes proposed by the French government (a slight increase in the size of the current pictogram) will most likely have little effect on preventing alcohol consumption during pregnancy.
Positive labelling examples
According to the HEN report, a number of Member States are becoming aware of the need to pursue more active policies to regulate labelling practices.
Experience from the Eurasian Customs Union (ECU) (Belarus, Kazakhstan and the Russian Federation) gives valuable insight on how a functioning multigovernmental approach to alcohol labelling can harmonize different legislative systems. The ECU adopted 3 technical regulations that oblige producers to include a list of ingredients and nutritional values on the labels of food products and alcoholic beverages. By 2019, all 3 sets of technical regulations were finalized. The results of this policy now need to be assessed by an independent audit.
France has introduced a law mandating labelling for all alcoholic beverages with a warning against drinking during pregnancy. The country’s authorities embedded the regulation within a wider strategy to raise awareness of the harms of drinking alcohol during pregnancy. Recent studies have already shown improvement in public awareness. The French Health Minister announced the inclusion of a measure to improve the visibility of the pregnancy logo in the National Public Health Plan for 2018–2022.
The Russian Federation has adopted stricter alcohol labelling regulations. It divided the comprehensive process to introduce legislation into smaller requests. Russian Federal Law No. 171 on the production and circulation of alcohol (which also regulates alcohol labelling) was first introduced in 1995, but has since been amended more than 40 times. This step-by-step strategy helped the country to achieve progress in line with WHO recommendations.
To successfully comply with the WHO European Action Plan to Reduce the Harmful Use of Alcohol 2012–2020 and the WHO Global Strategy to Reduce the Harmful Use of Alcohol, countries of the Region should consider adopting strong and comprehensive labelling policy options. The HEN report gives full and up-to-date information that is crucial for policy-makers.
The research was carried out with financial support from the Government of Germany, the Government of Norway and the Government of the Russian Federation within the context of the WHO European Office for the Prevention and Control of Noncommunicable Diseases.