Dr. Brendan Hanley, the Yukon’s chief medical officer of health, right, and John Streicker, the minister responsible for the liquor corporation, talk to media about the reinstatement of the liquor label warning study in Whitehorse on Feb. 15. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)

Yukon’s alcohol label study back on but without a cancer warning

The Yukon government halted the program last year after concerns from industry

The Yukon government has re-started a study on alcohol warning labels but without a label that linked the risk of cancer to alcohol consumption.

The study was halted in December, four weeks after it started, after complaints from the liquor industry.

Under this new version, two labels will be attached to alcohol for sale in the Whitehorse liquor store — one that shows a standard drink size, and a second that recommends women limit themselves to two drinks a day and men to three drinks a day.

The label warning of a cancer risk is no more.

The minister responsible for the liquor corporation, John Streicker, said the decision to eliminate the cancer label was made because of a possible lawsuit. The government believes its actions were lawful but there was a risk of a long and expensive court battle, he said.

“We had real conversations, for example, around legislative authority, label placement and trademark infringement, defamation. Those terms leave us thinking that litigation is a real risk.”

Dr. Brendan Hanley, the Yukon’s chief medical officer of health, said he was “disappointed” that the cancer warning label was not coming back, but glad that the overall study was continuing.

“The science documenting a causal effect between alcohol and cancer has been around for 30 years. It was around that time that the Word Health Organization officially recognized alcohol as having a carcinogenic role. Sometime later they classified it as a type one carcinogen, meaning that there is compelling evidence of a causal role between excess alcohol consumption and cancer in humans.”

Streicker has written the federal health minister asking that Ottawa consider the issue of cancer warnings on alcohol.

Dr. Tim Stockwell, one of the researchers involved in the northern study, said he is glad the study is going forward but he believes the results will be “diluted” without the cancer label.

“The sad thing is a sovereign government felt that they couldn’t act in the best interest of their citizens and that they were bullied essentially into taking a position which they didn’t think was the best one,” he said.

The goal of the study is to see if the labels raise awareness and lead to people changing their behaviour.

Stockwell said he thinks behaviour change is unlikely now, but that it’s still possible to raise awareness.

The cancer label had the most impact of the three, he said. Thanks to the pause, the study is also now shorter than it was before.

“And the label, I understand, won’t be on all alcohol containers,” he said.

Stockwell said he hopes about 70 or 80 per cent of the liquor for sale in the Whitehorse liquor store will have a label.

Cabinet spokesperson Matthew Cameron confirmed that liquor from small producers, including local Yukon producers, won’t get the labels.

Other products being exempted include small bottles where the label would interfere with the product label or trademark and bottles of beer and aluminum cans that are recycled locally, to ensure the study doesn’t impact local recycling efforts, he said.

Streicker acknowledged that the liquor industry might still be unhappy with the study.

“I think the preference of the producers is to not have labels, period, and not to have a label study. I think I’ve heard that from them,” he said.

“But I think it’s also fair to say that the thing they were most concerned about was the cancer label.”

Yukon Party MLA Brad Cathers criticized the government for not doing more consultation before the study started.

“This seems to be part of a pattern where, for a government that talked a pretty good line on public consultation during the election campaign, they’ve actually mishandled consultation on a number of files. Everything from the recycling regulations and the group home and the housing first project downtown.”

Streicker said he spoke at an industry event the summer before the original study and only spoke “generally about the need for social responsibility.”

“One of the things to understand first and foremost is that this is a set of researchers that approached us to do a study here in the Yukon and the Northwest Territories and we agreed,” he said.

“We did encourage them to talk directly with the producers and largely I want to say, we left that in their hands.”

Since industry complained, Streicker said officials have spoken with local producers and national industry representatives.

Stockwell pushed back against calls to consult. As a public health researcher there are ethical guidleines, he said.

“We don’t want to compromise the accuacy of the information that is put out to consumers because the people who are making a profit from the product are concerned.”

It’s still not clear what will happen to labels warning of the risk of drinking while pregnant. Those have remained in place in the communities but were removed from the Whitehorse liquor store at the beginning of the study last year.

Officials with the Yukon Liquor Corporation at first said the labels wouldn’t be coming back for the duration of the study.

But the minister appears to hold out hope.

“I think it sounds like they’re not likely to be, but I still hold this as part of conversations to come,” he said.

Stockwell said reseachers had orginally proposed a label with a pregancy warning.

“But the (Yukon) Liqor Corporation kept insisting that the labels should be smaller, smaller, smaller and then in two languages, and there was just no room,” he said.

Researchers are back in Whitehorse for more surveys to see if the four weeks that the labels were in place had any impact on consumers. Stockwell said researchers are still having conversations with the government about when labels will be back on shelves.

The study runs until June. Early results could be out by the end of the year, he said.

Contact Ashley Joannou at ashleyj@yukon-news.com

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