Consumer and public health agencies are calling on federal regulators to add new warning labels on alcoholic beverages to indicate they may cause cancer.
“Government Warning: According to the Surgeon General, consumption of alcoholic beverages can cause cancer, including breast and colon cancers,” is the proposed new language.
The Consumer Federation of America (CFA) said its aim is to increase the public’s awareness of the little-known link between alcohol and cancer. On Wednesday, it and more than a dozen other advocacy groups sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Treasury’s Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, urging the adoption of the new label.
Less than half of American adults are aware of the connection, which amounts to a “crisis” in cancer prevention awareness, according to an American Institute for Cancer Research survey.
“The disconnect between alcohol’s impact on cancer and the awareness of that impact should raise alarm bells,” said Thomas Gremillion, director of food policy at CFA. “The industry has succeeded in putting a health halo around alcohol. The government has the responsibility to give consumers the scientific information they need to make informed decisions about alcohol, just as it does with tobacco.”
Surgeon General report
The groups behind the plea highlighted the Surgeon General’s 2016 report showing the link between alcohol consumption and a variety of cancers.
“Even one drink per day may increase the risk of breast cancer,” the report states.
While some studies suggest that moderate drinking carries health benefits, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states that it’s impossible to conclusively link alcohol consumption to improved health outcomes. Roughly 90,000 Americans per year suffer from cancers that are associated with alcohol consumption.
The Alcoholic Beverage Labeling Act of 1988 requires that the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau consult with the Surgeon General to update the required warning statement if “available scientific information would justify a change in, addition to, or deletion of the statement.”
The health groups, including the American Institute for Cancer Research, the American Public Health Association and the U.S. Alcohol Policy Alliance, insist that existing labels warrant modernizing.
Some in the beverage industry are pushing back against what they call an “unwarranted” move, and even dispute the link between alcohol and cancer.
The claim “flies in the face of mountains of prior research conducted over decades that links one or two drinks a day to modest health benefits — notably a lower risk of cardiovascular disease,” said Jackson Shedelbower, spokesman for the American Beverage Institute.
He added, “Studies recently published that conclude otherwise often fail to control for confounding variables or present the data in a misleading way.”
The CFA proposes rotating the new warning message with existing alerts on bottles advising that women who drink while pregnant risk birth defects and that alcohol impairs one’s ability to drive a car or operate machinery. They cite research on tobacco warning labels showing that rotating the messages more effectively captures consumer attention.
Frighten or inform?
Jackson said that these kinds of cancer warnings “seek more to frighten than inform.”
Studies of similar measures taken in other countries show that government advice on alcohol affects levels of consumption. Alcohol consumption in Australia fell to 9.7 liters per person each year from 10.6 liters after the government in 2009 advised consumers to reduce drinking, according to the Wall Street Journal.
A separate study on the effects of cancer warning statements shows that they produced “favorable changes in alcohol consumption intentions, including among high-risk drinkers.”
A recent analysis shows that worldwide alcohol consumption fell 1.6 percent in 2018 compared to 2017. Nielsen data too shows that alcohol sales growth is slowing in part because of the rising popularity of wellness trends.