Booze industry brouhaha over Yukon warning labels backfired, study suggests

Alcohol industry groups were successful in getting the Yukon government to pull labels warning of the connection between alcohol and cancer from liquor store shelves, but the strategy may have ultimately backfired, researchers suggest.

Yukon government pulled warning labels after complaints from industry

Researcher Kate Vallance applies a warning label to a wine bottle in the Yukon government's Whitehorse liquor store in 2017. (Canadian Institute for Substance Use Research)

Industry efforts to oppose a Yukon study into the effectiveness of warning labels on alcohol containers may have backfired, researchers say.

New papers from the Canadian Institute for Substance Use Research at the University of Victoria published this past week in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs found that warning labels actually were successful at grabbing public attention. They also found that industry pushback against the study may have actually generated more publicity for the labels.

"By drawing attention to its own lobbying, the industry may have inadvertently increased public support for alcohol policies and helped to further broadcast the message that alcohol is a cause of cancer," wrote journal editor Thomas Babor, a professor of public health science at the University of Connecticut who was not involved in the study.

Study interrupted

Researchers placed three different labels on alcohol containers at the government liquor store in Whitehorse in 2017. The labels warned that alcohol causes certain types of cancer, the number of safe drinks in a container and information on safe levels of alcohol consumption.

The study found customers who saw the labels were more likely to remember what the labels said than customers at a comparison liquor store in Yellowknife where the labels weren't used. And, the study found sales of labelled products dropped 6.6 per cent at the Whitehorse liquor store, while sales of unlabelled products rose 6.9 per cent.

Liquor labels, including one warning that alcohol can cause cancer, were placed on alcohol containers by researchers. (Canadian Institute for Substance Use Research)

"What we found was in fact, [the labels] worked," said Kate Vallance, one of the study's lead researchers 

"Over time the people that we talked to in Yukon, they had increased knowledge of cancer risk from alcohol, better ability to estimate what one standard drink is, they had good recall of drinking guidelines and their knowledge improved over time."

The study did not go according to plan. Just weeks into the label experiment, the Yukon government pulled the cancer warning labels from store shelves, citing pushback from Canadian alcohol industry associations as well as local alcohol companies.

Legal risk overblown, researchers say

The government cited the fear of lawsuit by industry associations for defamation or copyright infringement. One of the papers released this week suggests those fears were groundless.

"The fact that the industry does not believe that alcohol can cause cancer or believes that there are more effective ways of educating the public is irrelevant," the study's authors write.

"Rather, the manufacturers must prove, on the balance of probabilities, that alcohol cannot cause cancer. Since the scientific literature has been interpreted by international cancer experts as providing definitive proof of alcohol's causal role, such a case could not be proven."

Emails between industry representatives and the Yukon Liquor Corporation obtained by freelance journalist James Wilt show that lobby groups tried to cast doubt on the study's validity. "'Alcohol can cause cancer' is a false and misleading statement," wrote Beer Canada president Luke Harford in one email.

Representatives from Spirits Canada, Beer Canada and the Canadian Vintners Association did not respond to requests for comment.

Feds should take lead on warning labels, minister says

John Streicker, the minister responsible for the Yukon Liquor Corporation, defended his government's handling of the kerfuffle.

"We never thought that that we were wrong or that the researchers were wrong," Streicker said.

"We had talked with our chief medical officer of health. We believed that the labels were giving valid information to Yukoners. The question was that if we entered into litigation it was going to take years it was going to take a lot of dollars, it was going to take a lot of time."

Vallance said governments that are directly involved in retail sales of alcohol, like Yukon, might find themselves at greater legal risk by not warning consumers about the risk of cancer.

Streicker said he accepts the proven link between alcohol and certain cancers, but believes the risk of a court battle is not a burden Yukon should have to bear alone. He said he plans to raise the issue of alcohol warning labels again with federal Health Minister Patty Hajdu once she's less occupied by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

"I believe that it should be a national conversation and I made efforts to try and make it one," he said. "I'll try again."

With files from Claudiane Samson


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