Issue Paper: The Efficacy of Warning Labels on Alcohol Containers for FASD Prevention

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Organizations and countries around the world have developed a number of prevention strategies to reduce the prevalence of Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD). Alcohol warning labels are becoming an increasingly common prevention strategy. In countries such as the United States, France, and Mexico, governments have mandated warning labels on alcohol containers or in alcohol advertising. Companies in other countries voluntarily include health warning labels on their alcohol products. However, research suggesting this approach is an effective means of FASD prevention is mixed.

 Alcohol Warning Labels

  • Alcohol warning labels are a low-cost population level prevention and health promotion approach that highlights the health concerns surrounding alcohol consumption
  • Universal alcohol warning labels address the overall risk of alcohol consumption rather than focusing on a specific health risk, like FASD
  • Research suggests that universal warning labels are more effective than risk-specific warning labels

Warning Labels on Tobacco Products

  • Warning labels on tobacco products have been successful in preventing and reducing smoking
  • Research suggests warning labels on alcohol containers won’t have the same impact as warning labels on cigarettes because of the specific nature of the impacts cigarettes can have on health; the larger size of warning labels on cigarette packaging; and the additional information on health risks supplied inside cigarette cartons
  • In cases where alcohol warning labels were effective, their impacts were only successful at reducing alcohol consumption in some groups and not others

Promoting Changes in Drinking Habits

  • On their own, warning labels are not likely to lead to direct change in alcohol consumption habits
  • Combining warning labels with other alcohol awareness and prevention strategies can promote a change in drinking habits by encouraging conversations about alcohol use and discouraging risky alcohol consumption behaviours
  • Exposure to alcohol warning labels can increase public awareness of the dangers of alcohol and promote a shift in social norms
  • However, increased awareness may not be effective at facilitating change in high-risk drinkers

Engagement with Warning Labels

  • For warning labels to be effective the consumer must see the label. In establishments such as bars and restaurants, alcohol is not often served directly from the container;
  • Picture-based messages are likely to be more effective than text-based messages because of the small surface area available to the label on the alcohol container
  • Warning labels may have unintended consequences, such as increasing guilt and stigma surrounding alcohol consumption and pregnancy

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Take-home Message

Warning labels are one component of an effective FASD prevention strategy. They may not be effective at stopping or reducing alcohol consumption on their own, but they have the potential to increase awareness about alcohol use during pregnancy and discourage risky alcohol use when combined with other prevention strategies.

For more information, please refer to the full paper here.

Authors: Kirsten Morrison, Kelly Harding, Lindsay Wolfson

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