Author: Star Editorial Board

What if you were to learn that a product you’ve consumed for years is associated with serious health effects, including cancer?

You’d probably approach your federal and provincial representatives and ask them to investigate why those in the know failed to warn you of the danger.

As it happens, it isn’t hypothetical. The product is alcohol, whose carcinogenic effect has been evident since at least 1910, when a medical journal reported a relationship between alcohol misuse and esophageal and stomach cancers.

More than a century later, most Canadians are still unaware of the link between alcohol consumption and cancer: According to a Canadian Cancer Society survey, only 28 per cent of Ontarians are aware of the relationship, largely because the message hasn’t been posted where people are likely to see it.

Yet the risks are real. The Canadian Cancer Society says that drinking alcohol raises the risk of developing head and neck, breast, stomach, pancreatic, liver and colorectal cancers. Their message: “The less alcohol you drink, the more you reduce your risk.”

There’s a simple way to inform Canadians, and it doesn’t require that they peruse some dusty old medical journal. All they should need to do is look at a bottle of booze to discover the association between alcohol and cancer, as well as ways to avoid negative health effects by following low-risk drinking guidelines.

Canadians are, after all, intimately familiar with warning labels on everything from food to sporting equipment to toys. But when it comes to alcohol, the packaging remains silent, save for telling us the luscious vineyard from which that wine came, or the number of times that premium vodka was distilled.

Non-affiliated Senator Patrick Brazeau would like to change that, as would NDP MP Lisa Marie Barron. Brazeau has tabled Bill S-254 while Barron has forwarded motion M-61, both of which would require warning labels on alcoholic products.

“Just as cigarettes are now properly labelled — after years of enormous and very well-financed industry resistance — alcohol products should also be properly labelled,” Brazeau writes on his website.

Although research on the subject is relatively limited, there is evidence that warning labels can help to educate Canadians about the risks of alcohol and, to a lesser extent, influence their drinking behavior.

A widely cited 2020 study from the Yukon investigated the effect of warning labels in the territory and found that the labels increased knowledge of alcohol’s effects and decreased consumption of alcoholic beverages.

According to the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction, not all studies have produced similar results, but most have found labels do provide valuable information. The centre’s systematic review of 39 studies from around the world found that health messages increase consumers’ knowledge and awareness of alcohol’s health-related effects, including the link with cancer.

The influence on alcohol consumption was mixed, with some studies finding labels led to people drinking less, while others found they had no such effect.

Similarly, brightly coloured, highly visible labels detailing low-risk drinking guidelines resulted in people reading, thinking about and discussing the guidelines, though the effect on alcohol consumption was again mixed.

Given this evidence, you’d think that labels are a no-brainer. But there’s the inevitable resistance to such warnings, largely from alcohol producers. During the Yukon study for example, industry pressure resulted in removal of the labels citing a link with cancer, though the low-risk drinking labels remained.

Nonetheless, there ought to be no opposition to at least investigating the effects of labels. There are few country-wide studies on the subject, which means Canada has an opportunity to contribute to the literature by implementing labelling and studying if it leads to increased knowledge or decreased consumption.

That doesn’t, however, mean that the burden need be borne solely by alcohol producers. By themselves, labels aren’t going to change the world. Rather, as the World Health Organization contends, labels are most likely to be effective if they’re embedded in a broader public health effort to reassess and reorient our relationship with alcohol.

We’ve had a long love affair with alcohol, a relationship where alcohol is seen as a relaxant, a social lubricant, and an almost indispensable companion during times of both sorrow and celebration. It is these aspects of our relationship with alcohol that stand in need of thorough reexamination as we ponder warning people of its dangers.

Finally, labelling should be part of a broader legislative effort, one that involves the development of a single public framework for all psychoactive substances. This was the key recommendation of last year’s expert task force, and it highlights the need to cease giving alcohol special legal status. Alcohol is a potentially dangerous drug, after all, and we need to start treating it like one.