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New report slams Canadian provinces for lax alcohol warning labels

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A new report on alcohol marketing policy in Canada finds that federal and provincial regulations on alcohol ads and alcohol warning labels are far too lenient, giving marketers too much influence over the drinking habits of Canadians.

An estimated 20 per cent of Canadian adults exceed the Canadian low-risk drinking guidelines, which call for less than 15 drinks per week for men and ten drinks per week for women. And the impact of problem drinking on health services is severe —a 2006 study found that healthcare and law enforcement costs along with lost productivity stemming from harmful drinking amount to $14.6 billion (US) annually. Further, the total direct financial burden in more than half of the provinces is greater than the direct revenue collected from alcohol sales.

As in other industries, alcohol marketing has a significant impact on product consumption. Studies have shown that exposure to alcohol ads is linked to increased drinking in young adults who currently drink and with earlier initiation into drinking if the youth has yet to begin drinking. Ads also affect perceptions of the dangers connected to alcohol, as alcohol marketing has been shown to encourage and reinforce positive attitudes towards the effects of alcohol and towards behaviours associated with drinking.

Thus, there’s a substantial role to be played by regulatory bodies in restricting alcohol marketing and thereby curbing the negative impact that ads for beer, wine and spirits can have on drinking habits.

Produced by researchers at the Centre for Addiction & Mental Health, the Dalla Lana School of Public Health at the University of Toronto and Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, the new report evaluates provincial regulations on alcohol marketing and policies on alcohol warning messaging and gives poor marks on both counts, nation-wide.

Collectively, while all provincial regulations go beyond the minimum set by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, the researchers found that on metrics such as alcohol sponsorship regulation, powers to ensure compliance and comprehensiveness of restrictions, the provinces only reached 52 per cent of an ideal score. Ontario and BC garnered the highest scores for marketing restriction policies and Nova Scotia and PEI scored the lowest. Ontario was found to be the only province with a formal complaint system for advertisements potentially in violation of provincial or federal guidelines, but even it has “relatively weak penalties” for violations, say the researchers.

“While there are examples of exemplary strategies in relation to each main policy dimension examined, the overall picture is of much unrealized potential for achieving public health and safety benefits through strong policies on restrictions on alcohol marketing and alcohol warning messages,” say the study’s authors.

On the topic of warning messaging, the provinces scored even worse — at a national average of just 18 per cent of an ideal score. None of the provinces have policies calling for warning labels on alcohol containers or packaging, the researchers argue, and the quality of point-of-sale displayed alcohol warnings was deemed across the board to be poor.

“While it is recognized that from a business and revenue generation perspective, alcohol marketing plays an important role, it is necessary that alcohol be promoted using a balanced approach that includes warning consumers of the potential risks associated with its use,” say the study’s authors.

The authors offer a set of recommendations for policy changes including prohibition of sponsorship practices that target youth, restricting the volume of alcohol ads in a given market, putting warning labels on products and creating an independent body to review the federal regulations governing alcohol marketing.

The report was published in the journal Substance Use and Misuse.

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About The Author /

Jayson is a writer, researcher and educator with a PhD in political philosophy from the University of Ottawa. His interests range from bioethics and innovations in the health sciences to governance, social justice and the history of ideas.

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