Gin, cursed Fiend, with Fury fraught,
If We Can Save Just One Kiddie
On Wed 11th of this month, an Adelaide ABC DRIVE producer phoned me, asking me to partake in a radio discussion on the matter of warning labels on alcohol products, and wine bottles in particular. Michael Smith was the announcer, the other guest Michael Thorn, Chief Executive of the Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education in Canberra. Here is a transcript of our conversation. Some of the callers and questions have been removed; otherwise it's verbatim. Or as close to verbatim as I can get it. We do talk funny.
Michael Thorn: Look, ah, our Foundation has been taking the lead on behalf of a number of public health organizations around the country promoting the idea that there should be prominent health warnings on all alcohol products and its associated packaging. We propose that there be a clear health warning on the front of all alcohol packaging, in other words on the front of a beer can if there can be such a thing on something that’s circular, um, and that there be a range of um different, of different messages that go to addressing what we know are the key long-term harms and the risk of various cancers for instance, through to the short-term harms and the risk of injury from being drunk for instance, and of course the need for a prominent label about the National Health and Medical Research Council’s advice to women and that is it’s safest not to drink while you’re pregnant, or thinking of becoming pregnant.
Michael Smith: So these warnings will be on the products themselves but would also extend to point-of-sale material; those sort of things.
MT: Yes. So we think it’s part of the need for a broader strategy to raise Australia’s awareness about the risks associated with the consumption of alcohol. It’s not going to be a silver bullet for all things that are problematic about people’s alcohol use, um, it’s not designed to frighten people off from consuming alcohol, but it’s certainly designed to try to raise um, the awareness in the community because really the community’s awareness about some of the short term and long term risks and what the authorities say is safe, um, is woeful. Very few people actually are aware of some of the – of some of these risks and um say for things like the problems associated with er with injury; he problems associated with short-term harms and also long-term cancers et cetera. But even with pregnancy where you think there was a reasonable sort of understanding in the community – fewer than fifty per cent of women know about the risks or can tell you what those risks are or what the official advice is to them.
MS: What’s been the reaction so far when you’re made your submission to the Federal Government?
MT: The um, the er the Foundation um, did a lot of work leading up to a meeting of all governments late last year where they decided that there should be um, one they sought further further advice from health authorities about the need for generic warning labels, but they did make the decision to say yes there should be a pregnancy warning label and have given industry two years to come up with some sort of regime for this.
So we’re heading in the right direction. Um now, I, I don’t trust any of them frankly in terms of doing this. It took more than thirty years from when er the British Council of Surgeons first published their findings about the link between tobacco and, and cancer, um so it was thirty years before um health warnings started to appear on tobacco products. Hopefully it won’t take that long with alcohol.
Michael Thorn, CEO of the Canberra thinktank and health lobbyist outfit, the Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education ... not your three bottle man.
MS: How specific should these warning be? What sort of wording could you imagine?
MT: Well, look, um, I, you don’t have much space so they need to be short and sharp and to the point so we’ve we’ve suggested in in some in some of our policy development works some er, some, some phrases … but in in the case of er pregnancy, we, we, we think something direct that just says “It’s safest not to drink, um, when you’re thinking of becoming pregnant or when you’re pregnant”. That that’s the sort of tone, that’s the sort of style that we would think is appropriate. And it should be combined with some sort of er symbol to er, to, to, to, to make it you know to cut cut through to precisely what we’re trying to say here.
MS: Philip White is a prominent wine writer in Adelaide. He joins us now. Philip, good afternoon.
Philip White: Hi there Michael.
MS: What do you think of all this?
PW: I reckon as a community we suffer from acute fatigue o'warning syndrome. We have far too much signage on everything. I bought a mop recently and it had a warning on it “Not to be used near electrical wires”. You know. And I think that the more warnings we put up, regardless of the need for them, or whatever that may be, um, people stop reading them. Er, you know. And the thing about liquor is quite interesting. I mean, you have to drink it. It goes in a glass a lot of the time. So as soon as you remove it from its bottle, there’s no warning on the wine glass that I use. Er. You know, these things are all a bit … it’s all a bit strange and presumptuous, and I really mean it: we’ve got too much signage.
MS: Philip, at the end of the day, as you pointed out, of course the alcohol ends up in glasses which wouldn’t have labels on them. Do you think that it would be harmful to the industry if there were health warning labels on alcohol bottles?
PW: Aha! There’s the lovely conundrum that the er that this lobby suffers. And I know these people, I actually help them with some things. But um, I find almost consistently with these sorts of warnings that they never get to the people, the market, that actually really needs to read them. You know, like in The Alice Springs for example, if you buy a bladder pack, you take the bladder out of the box before you walk away from the cash register. And you know, that’s the people we need to get to. And that’s much more about general education. You know it’s no good putting a little pretty picture of a wine snifter - on the bottom of the box - half full of wine, with a note saying “This box contains 32 standard drinks”. That, that just doesn’t work.
And then the lobbyist is in this strange position. Either they’re saying “We want this product to decrease in sales” [which they desire but do not say], or they say “oh no these health warnings won’t have any affect [on sales]”, er there’s a contradiction there because that means that the health warnings aren’t being noticed.
MS: Logistically how difficult would this be for the industry to implement, if it was legislated? Obviously the design of a label is particularly important when it comes to marketing wine. If, as Michael Thorn is suggesting, there would a fairly prominent warning on the front label of a bottle of wine, what impact would that have?
PW: I’d be verily enticed to use a decanter in a restaurant if the wine label I was drinking had a picture of a deformed foetus on it.
Just depends how far these things go.
I think there’s probably a good reason to have a line on the back of every alcoholic package saying “alcohol is dangerous” but you know, it’s pretty hard to find anyone on Earth who doesn’t understand that.
MS: How explicit would the labels be? Would it simply be wording, or perhaps as Philip White suggested then, a photo of a deformed foetus?
MT: Well we certainly haven’t suggested um sort of photographic representations of some of the harms. That’s that’s not been our position. And I think that the research from overseas shows that the simple statement is the way to begin here.
Look I I think that it’s important to acknowledge that the labels on their own are not going to solve all the problems. It has got to be accompanied by broader sort of social marketing programs. It has got to be about tackling the broader issues associated with the misuse and the harmful use of alcohol in our community. To think that just a simple label is going to save um someone’s life on its own is a bit of a far, a bit of a stretch but in combination with a series of other measures, I strongly believe, and the evidence certainly supports this, you can change people’s attitudes.
The um and some of these consequences are dire and you just heard what can happen as the result of a car accident, and someone who’s drunk, and in this case they weren’t even driving, but some of these things, particularly the issue which has been running in the media a bit today about foetal alcohol spectrum disorders, this this is a life sentence if your child is born with a foetal alcohol spectrum disorder, and it is er ultimately preventable, and too few women actually know that they shouldn’t really drink if they’re pregnant, or thinking of becoming pregnant.
So um some of these things have to be perhaps a bit more strident than others, and there needs to be a bit of a thinking about where you can effect or who you really need to affect and influence.
Um, you know, heavy - heavy drinkers are probably not going to be affected by any warning, and other measures need to be taken to deal with those sorts of issues. But if you’re talking about er somebody who’s thinking about getting pregnant you really should be taking a precautionary approach here: don’t drink. Because the risks are too great.
MS: Have the American labels had much of an impact? They’ve had them for what – thirty years?
MT: Ever since 1989. Certainly published research will show that they did have an impact on attitudes, and that people could recall the messages. But one of the problems with the American system is … it basically says something along the lines of “The Surgeon General advises that the consumption of alcohol can have health impacts” but it’s been the same message since 1989. There are very few um … it’s not not prescribed how this um message needs to be placed on the bottle so what we found, what we find is that alcohol producers design away the warning message for instance so you can, so it’s mixed in with a whole lot of other design work on the alcohol product.
There are seventeen jurisdictions, seventeen countries around the world where they have a health warning and like I say anyone exporting product out of Australia for instance to France or the US has to carry these warning labels. It’s not like something that the alcohol industry in this country doesn’t have to deal with. They already have to deal with it.
MS: Brendan’s given us a call, from Basket Range. Brendan, what’s your take on all this?
Brendan of Basket Range: A friend of mine who’s quite overweight recently bought a chair. Clearly sitting in a chair can reduce your fitness. And er, I just think that chairs need to be labeled, er, with that warning er, to protect those who purchase chairs.
You'll have to excuse my presumption here - the dissolved ego needed a covershot after the insult you'll read next. Photo Grant Nowell
MS: Philip White somebody here from Victor or whose name was Victor was suggesting that your face should be on bottles of wine because that’s a good warning not to drink. That’s a bit unkind, don’t you think?
PW: Yes. I’m used to that though. Bring ’em on.
I’ll tell you something really funny. I don’t know whether they’ve put it through yet, but in South Africa they’re having similar discussions about alcohol consumption on the government level and they’re seriously considering, or they’ve just passed, a law saying it’s illegal to sell alcohol to pregnant women. Which puts an incredible onus on the waiter; on the vendor. I mean, you’re just standing there: a twenty year old kid standing there in the drive-in bottle shop and a lady pulls in in a car – I mean what do you do?
MS: Could lead to some awkward moments. Are you pregnant or are you just carrying a few doughnuts? Michael Thorn we’ll finish with you, where we started. Where to now from here in terms of this submission and this proposal?
MT: Ah we are trying to work with government at the moment to establish how this pregnancy warning label is going to find its way onto alcohol products and we will continue to work with health ministers around the country to persuade them that generic warning labels should be put on all alcohol products so I know there’s lots of work to be done. I hope it doesn’t um take as long as it did with tobacco warning labels because in response to that last caller it is absolutely clear that warning labels on tobacco, along with other measures have saved millions and millions of lives and I hope that we can do similar things um on the alcohol front.