Alcohol health warning labels 'highly deficient' - study

Alcohol warning labels in New Zealand are "highly deficient" according to a new study, and researchers are calling on them to be compulsory and regulated.

But the alcohol industry lobby group says adding warning labels won't help to reduce the harm caused by alcohol.

Researchers from the University of Otago examined 59 labels on a range beers, wines, and RTDs to check the health warnings they had displayed.

"One of our biggest findings is that our warnings are small and they're also hard to find on the bottle... the average size of the picture warnings is the same size as that of a green pea," said the study's lead author and fifth year medical student Georges Tinawi.

The warning labels were "markedly smaller" than the promotional labels on the drinks and tended to take up less than 1 percent of the surface area of the containers.

Twenty percent of the bottles carried no warning about the dangers of drinking during pregnancy, and over 80 percent had no warning about the dangers of drink driving.

The researchers said the total health harm caused by alcohol is similar to that of tobacco, but the size and design of alcohol warning labels didn't reflect this.

The researchers also raised alarm over industry-led messages like "Cheers!" or "Enjoy responsibly" that were found on almost three quarters of the drinks studied.

"These messages are ambiguous from a health perspective and could even encourage further drinking," Mr Tinawi said.

The researchers are calling for warning labels about major alcohol-related risks including pregnancy, drink driving and cancer to be mandatory with a regulated set of guidelines.

"We know that warning labels are a really valuable tool, they've been very effective in terms of tobacco control and they make sense. It gets the message in the hands of the consumer when they are consuming it," said fifth year medical student Tessa Madeleine Gray.

Alcohol Beverages Council executive director Nick Leggett responded to the study by saying that labelling is "already widespread" and "doesn't prevent harm".

He said there's "no credible research" that shows warning labels reduce the harmful drinking of alcohol, and instead said more education about alcohol is needed in New Zealand starting at a younger age.

"The vast majority of New Zealand alcohol products now contain pregnancy warnings after a successful voluntary roll-out of labels by industry," Mr Leggett said.

"The alcohol sector is committed to reducing harm from alcohol products. That is done through real and continuous education."

Ms Gray said the industry has found ways of making the voluntary warning labels "less effective than would be ideal", like putting them alongside promotional labels.

"Unfortunately they profit off people who drink harmfully. The more people are drinking and the more frequently they're drinking, the more profit the alcohol industry makes."

She said standardisation would mean the warning labels could not be manipulated so no company would be able to gain a competitive advantage.

The study has been published in the international journal Drug and Alcohol Review.