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Alcohol labels – few and far between

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The answer to life’s questions is rarely found at the bottom of a bottle – and neither is advice about safe drinking.

An audit by the Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education (FARE) has found that just 37 per cent of alcohol bottles carry warnings about the health effects of drinking, two years after the industry promised alcohol health warning labels would appear on all products by 2013.

The audit found that spirits and mixed drink products were the best at complying with the voluntary warning labels, with 43 per cent of products displaying the labels.

But, despite the relatively low rate of compliance, it is a substantial increase from a year ago, when only 16 per cent of products displayed the labels.

State and Federal Health Ministers have given the industry until the end of the year to voluntarily implement the labels.

In its audit, FARE found that, even where warning labels were applied, they were mostly small and unobtrusively placed – 86 per cent took up less than five per cent of the label, and 93 per cent of all messages were placed on the back, bottom or side of the product.

AMA President Dr Steve Hambleton said that warning labels should be mandatory on all alcohol products, especially as a deterrent to teenage drinking and drinking while pregnant.

Dr Hambleton said Australia’s binge-drinking culture was getting worse and every capital city had pockets where drunken violence occurs.

“Health warning labels on alcohol must contain strong, clear messages about the negative health effects of excessive or irresponsible drinking,” Dr Hambleton said.

“The labels introduced voluntarily by the alcohol industry do not go far enough. They represent a soft approach on health labelling.”

Dr Hambleton said that health warning labels were just part of an overall strategy to deter underage teenage drinkers.

“Steps must be taken to stop young teenagers from picking up the bottle or can in the first place,” Dr Hambleton said.

Dr Hambleton also called for a ban on marketing and advertising of alcohol to teenagers, and expressed concerns about the use of social media by alcohol companies.

University of Western Sydney researchers tracked alcohol promotion on Twitter by seven global alcohol brands over six months and found that, although their Twitter following was relatively small, their promotions were widely retweeted to a much larger secondary audience, which possibly included those aged younger than 18 years.

While admitting that regulating social media was difficult, the researchers said lessons could be learnt from the successful combination of research, public pressure, political will and international cooperation that led the World Health Organisation ban tobacco promotion in 168 countries in 2003.

Kirsty Waterford