Communicating health research (26) Alcohol Warning Labels Need Updates to Reflect Harms: NEJM

9 September, 2022

This article in Medscape raises interesting points and questions about communicating health research. In this case there is overwhelming evidence that alcohol causes multiple adverse effects on physical and mental health, but this evidence has not yet translated into policy and practice. Below are extracts, and comments from me.

Forwarded from Medscape. Read in full:


Alcohol Warning Labels Need Updates to Reflect Harms: NEJM

Roxanne Nelson, RN, BSN

August 31, 2022

Warning labels on alcoholic products need to be updated to spell out details of potential harm in order to make them more effective, say two US researchers.

The current labeling, which has not changed for 30 years, focuses on risks during pregnancy and with operating machinery and includes a vague statement that alcohol "may cause health problems."

This is "so understated that it borders on being misleading," the two researchers argue.

The science related to the use of alcohol has moved on, and there is now firm evidence of harm. Alcohol has been classified by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) as a group 1 carcinogen and has been linked to an increased risk of many types of cancer. Drinking alcohol has also been linked to a wide range of other diseases, from liver disease to pancreatitis to some types of heart disease, the authors note.

Yet the general public is mostly unaware of the most serious health risks that are associated with alcohol consumption, they point out.

"We believe Americans deserve the opportunity to make well-informed decisions about their alcohol consumption," say Anna H. Grummon, PhD, MSPH, of the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health, Boston, Massachusetts, and Marissa G. Hall, PhD, MSPH, of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill...

However, as previously reported by Medscape Medical News, pressure from the alcohol industry led to changes in the Yukon project, and while a general health warning remains, the label about increased cancer risk was removed.

The alcohol industry has tried to suppress efforts to educate the public, and this has created problems in conveying health information to consumers, the authors note. The industry spends more than $1 billion each year to market its products in the United States.



1. When considering 'effective communication of health research', we need to be thinking not only about the impact of a single study, but also on how research findings combine with existing research evidence.

2. In the case of policymaking to update alcohol warning labels, as with most policies, the decision is typically taken by a collective of policymakers. That said, a senior policymaker (such as the president or health minister of a country) can champion the cause.

3. Whether single or multiple, policymakers need compelling evidence, both to direct them to their favoured policy, and to persuade others of the merits of that policy.

4. Different policymakers will have different motivations. While a health minister may favour to update alcohol warning labels to decrease consumption, the president may be more interested to increase consumption, perhaps to generate more tax revenue. The Japanese government for example is actively *encouraging* young people to drink more alcohol:

5. There is a human-rights dimension to this discussion. As HIFA has demonstrated in our white paper with the New York Law School, governments have a legal obligation under international human rights law to ensure that their citizens have access to reliable healthcare information. This implies that governments have a legal obligation to update alcohol warnings so that citizens are better informed.

With the above in mind, and considering the question of alcohol warning labels (or any other health policy), we can reflect on the five questions that guide our discussion:

1. What do we mean by ‘Effective communication of health research to policymakers?’ How do we measure it?

2. What are the different approaches to communicating research (eg academic journals, policy briefs, interaction with policymakers, press releases, social media, infographics, use of video)? What is your experience with these approaches? What works and what doesn't?

3. What is the role of researchers in research communication, beyond publication of their paper? What is the role of other stakeholders (eg communication professionals, editors, media, public health professionals and critical thinkers)

4. What are the needs and preferences of policymakers?

5. What can be done to better support researchers in the communication of health research?

Neil Pakenham-Walsh, Global Coordinator HIFA,

Working in official relations with WHO