Liquor industry calls halt to cancer warning labels on Yukon booze

The Yukon government has stopped putting cancer-warning labels on alcohol products, after protest from national liquor brand owners.

'Unfortunately, it didn't have the consent of label owners,' says Yukon Liquor Corp.

New warning labels for alcohol containers were introduced in Yukon in Nov. 2017, as part of a Health Canada study. (Government of Yukon)

It was supposed to be a public health experiment, backed by Health Canada and Yukon's chief medical officer of health.

For eight months, new, more prominent stickers would be attached to cans and bottles of alcohol warning of cancer risks associated with drinking and encouraging healthy habits around alcohol.

The goal was to understand how warning labels could influence consumers' attitudes and behaviours. It was part of a larger public health strategy, and Yukon provided an enthusiastic testing ground.

But just a few weeks in, that project came to a halt.

"Unfortunately, it didn't have the consent of label owners," said Patch Groenewegen, manager of social responsibility, policy and planning with the Yukon Liquor Corp.

"The liquor industry has concerns which includes the legislative authority on applying labels post market, the label placement and trademark infringement," she said.

"Also, defamation and damages related to the messages on the labels that are affixed to the brand owners's products without consent."

Groenewegen declined to say which companies raised the concerns, but said the Yukon Liquor Corp. won't be applying the stickers to any new products.

New stickers replaced pregnancy warning

The label experiment was part of a multiyear study that involved the University of Victoria and Public Health Ontario, with funding from Health Canada.

The plan was to temporarily replace small labels warning about the risks of alcohol during pregnancy to test the effectiveness of new messages. Those labels have been in place since 1991.

Labels warning that 'Drinking alcohol during pregnancy can cause birth defects,' have been appearing on liquor bottles since 1991. (Mike Rudyk/CBC)

That also didn't sit well with some. 

Groenewegen says the liquor corporation is working with the Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Society of Yukon to make sure all concerns are addressed.

Asked whether this is a case of corporations controlling the message, Groenewegen paused.

"At this point in time, it would be prudent to say there were concerns about the actual study itself and the messages around alcohol and alcohol consumption.

"I think there's different ways that can be communicated and more effective ways to be communicated so those discussions are going forward with industry on how we can manage and better communicate with the public about the potential harms related to alcohol."

With files from Max Leighton

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