Yukon alcohol producers say they were left in the dark about warning label study
'The first we had heard about it was waking up one morning and listening to your newscast' says Bob Baxter
Two local alcohol producers say they were never consulted by the Yukon government or health researchers before new warning labels were applied to alcohol products sold in Whitehorse.
The labels, that warn of cancer risk and advise limits on one's daily alcohol intake, were in use for just a few weeks last year before the territorial government halted the initiative, under pressure from lobbyists for liquor manufacturers.
"I mean, if I wandered down the aisle of a grocery store and started putting stickers on boxes of cereal at my own whim — I don't have the authority to do that," said Bob Baxter, president of Yukon Brewing.
The pilot project started in November, and was part of a second phase of the Northern Territories Alcohol Study, led by Health Canada. The Yukon government was involved in the project, and helped publicize the new labels.
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"The first we had heard about it was waking up one morning and listening to your newscast," Baxter told CBC.
"We are pretty used to partnering with people, whether it's governments or other companies. You always sit down and look for a way that works for everybody."
The project's researchers wanted to learn about drinking habits in the North, and what impact warning labels might have on consumer behaviour.
Karlo Krauzig, owner of Yukon Shine Distillery in Whitehorse, wonders why his industry is being targeted when there are so many other products with health risks.
"You look at sugar — sugar is a major cause of health issues, diabetes, heart disease, obesity. The list goes on and on," he said. "But we don't have labelling on cans of pop that our kids are pulling out of vending machines nonstop."
'There is a lot at stake here'
Patch Groenewegen, manager of social responsibility, policy and planning for the government-run Yukon Liquor Corporation, says the Northern Territories Alcohol Study was not led by the Yukon government.
"The Yukon Liquor Corporation did encourage the researchers to reach out to the liquor industry, including our local producers," she said.
The Yukon government is now working with alcohol lobby groups to figure out a way for the project to continue.
"This is a $700,000 study that took four years in the making ... so there is a lot at stake here," said Tim Stockwell, director of the Canadian Institute for Substance Use Research at the University of Victoria and one of the project's researchers.
He says he understands brand owners may not be happy, but says survey data from the study shows Yukoners wanted more information about health risks from drinking.
He also says he's had many meetings with lobbyists representing the liquor industry, and they invariably oppose new warning labels.
"Our conversation would go something like this: 'We're thinking of a study putting labels on your alcohol containers about possible health effects' ... they would say, 'no, you are not going to do that — we are going to stop you, and we will use all means at our disposal to stop that information getting out,'" Stockwell said.
Stockwell also said it would violate ethical guidelines for researchers to discuss label design with people who have vested commercial interests.