Lawmakers, Alcohol Industry Tussle Over Cancer Labels On Booze

Posted : 02/10/2018


Countries have hardened stance after recent studies suggest even modest consumption increases risk

The Wall Street Journal [read the full article]
By Saabira Chaudhuri 
February 9, 2018

A month after slapping bright red and yellow cancer warnings on bottles of wine, vodka and other tipple late last year, workers at the government-run liquor store in Whitehorse, Canada, took them all off again.

“Alcohol can cause cancer,” read the labels, part of a government-funded pilot program. They quickly drew phone calls and letters from representatives of some of the world’s biggest booze makers, who complained that the Yukon government had overstepped.

Whitehorse, population 22,000, is now at the epicenter of the decades old fight over cancer warnings for alcohol. The battle, which pits the drinks industry against alcohol researchers and some public-policy makers, has flared recently as links between cancer and even modest drinking get renewed attention.

The alcohol industry generally acknowledges the link between heavy drinking and several types of cancers, but it also says that alcohol consumed in moderation can be part of a healthy lifestyle. Executives have said labeling that calls out cancer risks is inappropriate and can be confusing.

Lawmakers in some countries take a different view.

In Ireland, the country’s upper house approved legislation in December requiring cancer warnings on labels for all alcoholic beverages. The lower house took up the bill this week. Patricia Callan, director of the Alcohol Beverage Federation of Ireland, an industry body, says the amendment calling for the cancer labels was rushed through. Her group is fighting the effort.

Last month, the U.K. Royal Society for Public Health, a health-education nonprofit, called for cancer warnings to be included on alcohol labels in Britain. U.K.-based alcohol industry body, the Portman Group, said research shows “little public interest in a radical overhaul of drinks labeling and strong opposition to cramming more information” onto products. The group acknowledges links between alcohol and some types of cancer, but has said that “different levels of alcohol consumption have a range of effects on cancer risk.”

In California, the government is hardening decades old rules that warn about cancer risks from a host of consumer products, including kitty litter, licorice and alcohol. The state’s Proposition 65, passed in 1986, required labels on many of these products, but the alcohol industry won an exception.

Instead of labels on bottles, signs warning of cancer risk are required to be posted in stores and restaurants that sell booze. Now, the California government is requiring the posters to carry a website link to more specific language about the risk of a variety of cancers. U.S. trade bodies like the Beer Institute have said they don’t have to take action, citing a prior court decision.

The World Health Organization labeled alcohol a carcinogen in 1988. Cancer risk was part of a federal labeling effort proposed in 1986 in the U.S., but it was abandoned after industry lobbying. Today, federal rules require only the U.S. Surgeon General’s warning against drunken driving and drinking while pregnant, as well as a general warning that alcohol “may cause health problems.”

But a raft of recent international studies and health-policy moves has thrown a fresh spotlight on alcohol’s cancer risks. In November, the American Society of Clinical Oncology warned that even “modest use of alcohol may increase cancer risk.” Last month, a study published in Nature identified acetaldehyde as key to the link between drinking and cancer. The chemical is produced when the body breaks down alcohol.

The U.K. created a global health-policy splash in 2016 when Britain’s top doctor, akin to the surgeon general in the U.S., warned that even the smallest amount of alcohol raises the risk of cancer.

Erin Hobin, a scientist at Public Health Ontario, the Canadian province’s health ministry, and a researcher on the Yukon project, said the labeling study was designed to see if labels could increase awareness of the cancer risk. Researchers from the University of Victoria and Public Health Ontario received funding of about $600,000 for the Yukon labels from Canada’s federal health ministry.

Soon after they started in November, Jan Westcott, head of Spirits Canada, a trade body of distillers, said he called to complain. Beer Canada—whose members include Molson Coors Brewing Co.—and Vintners Canada, a winemakers’ trade group, joined in the opposition.

“Some of the researchers have taken the decision alcohol is like tobacco,” said Mr. Westcott. “Obviously we don’t agree.”

A spokeswoman for the Yukon cabinet, which has direct responsibility for the Whitehorse liquor store, said the industry also took issue with Yukon’s legislative authority, trademark infringement and defamation.

John Streicker, the Yukon minister in charge of the liquor store, said the government believes “the messages we placed there were based on scientific evidence.” The government is seeking a compromise in meeting with industry representatives, he said. For now, though, he said the government can’t afford any costly litigation that might stem from a protracted disagreement and he has no plans of restarting the labeling.

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