‘We don’t want to be the fun police,’ but doctors say large health warnings for alcohol are needed

‘We don’t want to be the fun police,’ but doctors say large health warnings for alcohol are needed

Winemakers collectively raised an eyebrow last week when the suggestion of extra health warnings for alcohol was floated by major national medical associations.

A recent nationwide study found a majority of Australians supported expanded health warnings on alcoholic beverages, and the Australian Medical Association and the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners both called for the warnings to be introduced.

Requirements for pregnancy health warnings on alcoholic beverages were introduced in July, 2020.(Supplied: Food Standards Australia New Zealand)

In addition, the Health and Aged Care Assistant Minister Ged Kearney said she had asked the federal Health Department to provide her with advice on “options for raising consumer awareness on the harms associated with alcohol”.

Those options could include labels for bottles, which has been introduced into law in Ireland, that  warn of heightened levels of cancer from alcohol consumption.

Potentially, plain packaging or graphic imagery could be used in future for alcohol, as is currently the case for tobacco products.

Dr John Saul supports the introduction of more health warnings on alcoholic beverages.(ABC News: Luke Bowden)

Dr John Saul from the Australian Medical Association (AMA) Tasmania said he supported the concept of more health warnings on alcohol.

“Graphic warnings do work when it comes to cigarette smoking,” Dr Saul said.

“We’re seeing a real shift away from smoking, and this is one of the pieces in the puzzle.

“Do the warnings on alcohol have to be graphic or educational? I’m not sure. Both will work.”

Premium winemakers opposed

Out in the vineyards of northern Tasmania, the recent push for more health labels has not gone unnoticed.

At Swinging Gate Vineyard, winemaker Doug Cox said stark health labels on his wine would not make sense.

Mr Cox said the worst impacts of alcohol consumption involved binge drinking or drinking to excess, which is rare when it comes to wines from boutique vineyards like his.

“If they are looking at Tasmanian wine for this, they are probably looking in exactly the wrong place,” he said.

“Tasmania produces less than one per cent of the wine in Australia, but it produces a lot of the premium end.

“The real problem is the $3 bottles … there should be a base price on alcohol because that is where, I believe, the health implications are.”

Doug Cox says a base price for alcohol would be a better way to address problem drinking.(Supplied: Swinging Gate Vineyard/Facebook)

Head winemaker at Ghost Rock Wines, Justin Arnold, said health labels on alcohol needed to be well planned before implementation.

“Warnings and labels have their place, but they’re not a silver bullet,” he says.

“If we don’t approach the labels in the right manner, they’ll just become wallpaper, they’ll lose their meaning.

“It’s an aspect of our industry that we’re all very supportive of and conscious of, but they need to be treated in the broader context of the alcohol conversation.”

Winemakers ‘running out of space’ on bottles

A pregnancy health warning that includes a silhouette of a pregnant woman and a red prohibition sign on alcohol bottles was introduced in 2020.

Vineyards and other alcohol producers across the country now have to make sure they include it on their bottles after it became mandatory on August 1 this year.

Graphic designer Tim Gilroy said winemakers were running out of space on their bottles to include all the information they are all legally required to.

“Putting a new warning onto the front label would be such a shame — particularly on wine labels, some of them are artworks,” Mr Gilroy.

“There are so many recognisable Tasmanian brands. You don’t want to see that ruined.”

“If you think of the smoking warnings, they’re hideous. To plaster something like that over a front label on a wine bottle, seems like a real shame.”

Justin Arnold says any changes to health warning laws need to be well-planned.(Supplied: Ghost Rock Wines/Facebook)

‘We need to increase health knowledge’

A recent national study showed that 78 per cent of adults supported the idea of expanded health warning labels for alcohol.

The research, conducted for the Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education, sampled more than 1,000 people across the country.

Doug Cox says premium and boutique wines aren’t the problem.(Supplied: Swinging Gate Vineyard/Facebook)

Dr Saul said highly visible health warnings on alcohol would especially help Tasmania, a state that struggles with some of the worst health statistics nationwide.

“We know that if we help health literacy amongst all our Tasmanians, we’ll see better outcomes,” he says.

“Alcohol is one area where we need to increase health knowledge.”

While Dr Saul said he did not have a preference for graphic or large written labels, he is pleased that the issue is getting some attention.

“The AMA has been focused on this for a while now,” he said.

“We don’t need to stop drinking, we just need to get the knowledge out there … we don’t want to be the fun police.”

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