Perspective: Cancer warning labels on alcohol? Tread carefully


You know what the world needs more of right now? Food labels, apparently.

Often it feels like we’re drowning in food labels — information, marketing, or otherwise. Some are more meaningful than others, of course. But it’s unclear how much those labels actually, really, truly influence our purchasing and consuming decisions. Do we even notice them anymore?

But prepare yourself, there’s growing calls to add yet another one to the mix.

Major public-health organizations are pushing the U.S. Treasury Department’s Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) to adopt a cancer warning on all alcoholic beverages. Groups like the National Cancer Institute and the Consumer Federation of America suggest the label is needed for complete transparency and honesty. They believe the cautionary statement may influence consumer choices.

The TTB already regulates warning labels on alcoholic beverages. If you’ve cracked one open, you’re probably already familiar with them. They warn drinkers not to drive afterwards or to avoid alcohol while pregnant. Changes don’t come easy though: adding another warning would require a fairly involved congressional reporting process. The TTB, however, is supposed to promptly report “available scientific data.”

And there’s plenty of data supporting a link between alcohol consumption and cancer. Most recent evidence comes from the 2020 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee report that found little value in alcohol consumption. It also recommended reducing consumption for long-term health benefits. It states:

“Alcohol consumption and binge drinking are increasing in the United States, and excessive alcohol consumption is a leading behavioral risk factor for a variety of morbidity and mortality outcomes, social harms, and economic costs. … Although alcohol can be consumed at low levels with relatively low risk, for those who choose to consume alcohol, evidence points to a general rule that drinking less is better for health than drinking more. Therefore, the focus should remain on reducing consumption among those who drink, particularly among those who drink in ways that increase the risk of harms.”

Petitioners for the new label are also relying on the 2016 surgeon general’s report linking alcohol to an increased risk of breast cancer.

But let’s be honest: How many of us base our alcohol consumption on how healthy it is? Sure, we snarkily refer to that such-and-such study that says drinking red wine is good for us, but none of us are serious about it. We’re drinking because we want to relax and unwind after a hard day. We don’t honestly think it’s as good as going to the gym. So what difference does a label make?

There’s another product that may offer some parallels: cigarettes.

Initially, cigarettes were thought harmless. Mass production started in the early 20th century, which helped make smoking more mainstream. Cigarettes were glamorized by advertisements. And the federal government even gave them away for free to soldiers serving in the world wars.

But while cigarette use increased, eventually so did the rates of lung cancer. Although some small studies were published showing a correlation between the two, it wasn’t clear there was causation.

Things started to change in the 1950s. The American Cancer Society was a driving force for research conclusively establishing a link. Scientists working for the organization performed the first prospective study. When initial results revealed a positive correlation, they conducted an even larger study following more than a million Americans. The results made President John F. Kennedy and the surgeon general take notice. In 1964, the Office of the Surgeon General published its report demonstrating the link between smoking and lung cancer.

And we know how that story ended. According to the American Lung Association, cigarette smoking has fallen 68 percent among adults since 1965. Trends are similar for youth. Those trends are continuing, with significant decreases even in the last five years. There’s also little dispute that smoking causes cancer.

So can the same thing happen with alcohol?

It’s hard to imagine a world where our alcohol consumption decreases so drastically. That’s especially true in a time where more and more illicit drugs are being decriminalized across the country. Not to mention we’ve seen a growing skepticism of science and authorities.

But this is also one reason why I wish we could clean up food labeling. I want the public to trust the information on the labels, and know that it means something. If your lite beer says it’s going to cause cancer, but the organic label is giving it a health halo, which will you believe? Or do you choose the non-GMO vodka, because then at least you’re not getting the cancer from the lab? I’m being facetious, but we all know someone who will rationalize it that way.

There are certainly parallels between the history of cigarettes and the current status of alcohol. Alcohol is glamourized in advertising, and it’s part of our culture and customs. And let’s not forget that humans have been drinking it for thousands of years. My guess is that curbing casual drinking will be an uphill climb.

I suppose we’ll have to wait a few decades to find out the answer.


Amanda Zaluckyj blogs under the name The Farmer’s Daughter USA. Her goal is to promote farmers and tackle the misinformation swirling around the U.S. food industry.

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