We count on our government to warn us of danger. We take it for granted that we will hear of product recalls, e-coli in food, problems with bears, or a risk of avalanche. In fact, if government didn’t share this information, it would be in some serious trouble.
So it’s understandable that our territorial government thought to warn us of the dangers of drinking alcohol too. The only problem is, it seems we may not be ready to hear about this one.
As part of a research project funded by Health Canada, Yukon government started putting labels on our booze explaining drinking guidelines, standard drink sizes, and warning of the possible risk of cancer. It’s widely known that we Yukoners drink more than most Canadians, after the Northwest Territories. And we know that this can’t be good for us. It’s harmful to our economy with increased health care costs, lower productivity and more car accidents, to name a few issues.
It’s also harmful to our health. When Brendan Hanley, Yukon’s Chief Medical Officer of Health tells us there is link between alcohol and cancer, it’s something to be taken seriously.
And Hanley is not alone. Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer said in a report in 2015 on alcohol consumption that Canadians who drink regularly risk developing chronic conditions, including cancer. Even the World Health Organization is pretty clear about a causal link between drinking and cancer and lists alcohol as a carcinogen.
So it made sense that Yukon would participate in a study putting warning labels on our liquor. And they were pretty tame labels, I might add, without any menacing photos like you see on a cigarette package. The question was, would the warning labels change our drinking habits?
While the backlash from the liquor industry to the labels was, well, predictable, the response from ordinary Yukoners maybe caught our government by surprise. People seemed to take the labels almost as an invasion of their privacy because the message was so blunt. Or they were frustrated that more wasn’t being done to help those most impacted by addiction.
Yukon government back-pedalled, at first stopping the labeling, and then restarting, but with some notable exemptions: locally produced alcohol, aluminum cans, and small liquor bottles will not have warning labels. Most importantly, there are no more labels pointing out that drinking alcohol may cause cancer.
It was not that long ago that we had a very similar debate about warning labels on cigarettes. In the late ‘80s, we started with simple black-and-white messages on a pack of smokes. Gradually, the warnings on cigarettes have become more prominent and more striking. We now have warnings covering 75 per cent of a package of cigarettes, with an explanation and graphic image depicting the most gruesome ailments. The graphic warnings have had a significant impact on the rates of smoking and the number of attempts to quit smoking in Canada.
In the near future, Ottawa is going to require warning labels on foods high in sugar, sodium and saturated fat. The goal of these labels is pretty simple — to make it easy for us to make informed, healthy choices. With more and more Canadians struggling with obesity, heart disease, diabetes and cancer, our federal government is taking a bold approach to labelling food. Health Canada officials estimate that perhaps up to half our food in the grocery store might be carrying these warning labels when the new regulations are fully in effect in 2022. We will have to wait and see just how much these labels change our eating habits.
When it comes to warning labels on alcohol, we are a little further behind. Lots of countries around the world require labels warning of the harmful effects of alcohol — for example, see the website for the International Alliance for Responsible Drinking. Most labels encourage drinking in moderation and avoiding alcohol while pregnant. Notably, Korea is currently the only country that requires a label warning of the risk of cancer from alcohol.
If anything, it’s telling about our relationship with alcohol that we would rather not know, or at least not talk about, the most serious potential health impacts of drinking.
If most of us are going to drink alcohol, maybe a little more public education about the risks isn’t such a bad thing. Just like we do with smoking. And just like we will soon be doing with our groceries. But government is going to have to find a gentler and more gradual way to break the news to us on its next attempt.
Shaunagh Stikeman is a lawyer, facilitator and community advocate who lives in Whitehorse.