Do Warning Labels on Alcoholic Beverages Deter Alcohol Abuse?

By Engs, Ruth C. | Journal of School Health, March 1989 | Go to article overview

Do Warning Labels on Alcoholic Beverages Deter Alcohol Abuse?


Engs, Ruth C., Journal of School Health


Do Warning Labels on Alcoholic Beverages Deter Alcohol Abuse?

Most educators would probably agree that drinking, even problem drinking, represents a complex social issue fraught with cultural mores, opinions, and values. To solve serious social problems such as substance abuse, oftentimes simplistic solutions that introduce programs are initiated, regardless of their effectiveness.[1] New federal legislation now mandates that warning labels which identify the possible health consequences of drinking be placed on alcoholic beverage containers. Testimony presented to the U.S. Congress to support passage of this new law suggests these warning labels will help decrease alcohol abuse and alcoholism. Proponents contend consumers will read the label and be less likely to drink abusively.[2,3]

Are the warning labels a symbolic gesture in support of alcohol abuse prevention and education, or are they an effective public health technique or adjunct to other alcohol education programs? These two important questions will be examined by reviewing research on health warning labels, examining educational programs in other health areas, and discussing implications from the Health Belief Model.

DO WARNING LABELS OR NOTICES CONTRIBUTE TO BEHAVIOR CHANGE?

Messages received from warning labels may or may not increase consumers' awareness of a health risk or influence their behavior to reduce the risk. In many cases, the effectiveness of the label cannot be differentiated from concurrent educational programs. McCarthy et al[4] reviewed more than 400 articles concerning warning labels on products such as seat belts, health products, and household chemicals and concluded on-product warning had no measurable impact on user behavior or product safety. Other studies, however, have found positive effects.

Since 1975, packaged processed foods were required by law to bear a nutrition label if a nutrition claim was made for the product or if it was fortified with additional nutrients.[5] One study[6] indicated that after diet sodas were required to carry a warning that saccharin causes cancer in animals, soft drink sales slowed but continued to increase.

In 1982, the FDA asked food manufacturers to voluntary label the sodium content of their products. In a study tracking the public's awareness of the dangers of sodium, Heimbach[7] found public concern about high sodium intake increased as increases in sodium labeling on products occurred. However, he was unable to differentiate the impact of labeling from the impact of media and public health high blood pressure education programs. Another study indicated "shelf labeling" of food products deemed low or reduced in sodium, calories, fat, or cholesterol resulted in increased sales compared to those without the information. However, other media campaigns during the study period could have influenced the results.[8]

Due to conflicting findings, investigators are unable to determine whether or not consumers even read health and safety warnings. And even if a warning is read, the caution may not be followed and the warning may not be read again. In one study in which students were asked to wear safety goggles while hammering a nail, students neglected to wear the goggles despite a warning label on the hammer and the presence of goggles near the hammer.[9] Teachers are aware of many students and adults who, after a few days, do not notice a health or safety message posted on a bulletin board. When traffic safety notices are given such as, "buckle your seat belt: it's the law," how frequently do unbuckled drivers read the sign and then buckle up? Regardless of state law or seat belt warning signals,[4] less than 15% of all drivers use seat belts. How many drivers speeding faster than 65 miles per hour slow down when they see a freeway speed limit sign?

Conversely, studies of prescription inserts to inform consumers of the dangers and proper use of a drug, a practice that may be more analogous to alcohol warning labels, find that most patients read the information provided with the prescription and show an increased knowledge about the side effects and the dangers.

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Do Warning Labels on Alcoholic Beverages Deter Alcohol Abuse?
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