Yukon seeks 'common ground' with liquor industry over warning labels

New warning labels were introduced at the Whitehorse liquor store last fall, then scrapped when alcohol manufacturers cried foul.

New labels were introduced in Yukon last fall, then scrapped when alcohol makers cried foul

Yukon officials, including Chief Medical Officer of Health Brendan Hanley, proudly touted the new warning labels as a first in Canada, last November. Weeks later, the territory bowed to industry pressure and stopped using the labels. (Mike Rudyk/CBC)

The Yukon government is still hoping to salvage a project involving contentious warning labels applied to bottles and cans at the Whitehorse liquor store, late last year.

The labels, that warn of cancer risk and advise limits on one's daily alcohol intake, were in use for just a few weeks before the territorial government reluctantly stopped affixing them to bottles and cans. The government cited pressure from liquor manufacturers, who complained of trademark infringement and defamation.   

"We knew that there would be rumblings from industry, based on previous stances. So it's not a surprise," said Brendan Hanley, Yukon's chief medical officer of health.

"I think perhaps the vehemence of the response is surprising and disappointing ... to me, industry should be a key partner in promoting healthy alcohol consumption."

The brightly-coloured labels were introduced with a splash in November. The initiative was part of an ongoing Health Canada study on drinking habits in the North.

Yukon officials proudly touted the new labels as a first in Canada, and the territory was presented as a public health trailblazer. The goal was to determine what, if any, impact such warning labels might have on consumer behaviour.

'Let's be clear that this is a hard discussion, and I'm not sure that we're going to find common ground,' said John Streicker, minister responsible for the Yukon Liquor Corp. (CBC)

"We think we're right. We don't think that we entered into this believing that it was incorrect for us to do it, or that it was wrong, from an academic perspective," said John Streicker, the minister responsible for the Yukon Liquor Corporation.

Still, he says, officials understood they could be facing some expensive lawsuits so the labels were scrapped — at least for now.

"We're in conversations with producers and with the researchers, to try and see whether there is common ground, that the study can continue on, and get results at the end of it," he said.

"Let's be clear that this is a hard discussion, and I'm not sure that we're going to find common ground."

'A very blunt instrument'

Luke Harford, president of the trade association Beer Canada, says he first learned of the new labels through the media, and he immediately found them "problematic."

"Because of course, my members would have some questions as to what was going on," he said.

He wanted to know how the labels came to be, and who crafted the messages. He sits on the National Alcohol Strategy Advisory Committee, so he knew that organization had no input.

Two new labels were presented last fall. One warns of cancer risks associated with drinking, and the other advises limiting one's daily intake. (Government of Yukon)

He's particularly concerned about a label that advises people to reduce health risks by limiting their daily intake of alcohol (two standard drinks per day for women, three for men, it says). 

"People can interpret that to mean, 'oh that's the safe amount for me to drink, and that must be — if the government's putting it on my product — it must mean I can safely drink and still drive," he said.

Harford says the alcohol industry supports responsible drinking, and thinks there are more effective ways to promote low-risk behaviour.

"The label, for us, is a very blunt instrument," he said.

Harford also rejects any comparison between alcohol and tobacco, when it comes to warning labels about cancer risk.

"Alcohol is nothing like tobacco. You don't smoke your beer, you drink your beer. And I mean, the correlation between cancer and alcohol is nothing like the strong relationship between tobacco smoking and cancer rates."

Seeking common ground

Industry representatives plan to meet again with Yukon government officials on Friday, to see if they can find some hoped-for "common ground" about the labels.

"I'm not opposed to providing information in more meaningful and helpful ways," Harford said.

"Ultimately, we all share the same perspective, we all share the same goal. We may have different ideas on how we're going to achieve those goals."

Dr Brendan Hanley says it's not just a matter for Yukon, either. He hopes the territory can spark a "national conversation" about responsible drinking, and public health. 

But ​Hanley hopes that Yukon is not left to face a powerful industry on its own, saying it may not be in the territory's best interest to provoke a potentially expensive legal battle by itself.

"Perhaps other jurisdictions, whether federal or some of our colleagues around the country, could step forward and offer support. That could be a faint hope, because everyone has their own jurisdictional priorities."

With files from Sandi Coleman


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