A recent Campaign article revealed that the Government is
considering proposals from the British Medical Association for the
introduction of health warnings on labels and advertising for alcoholic
drinks (Campaign, 23 April).
In my opinion, such a move would not curb excessive drinking among young
people. It would, however, be an intrusion into the lives of the
millions who enjoy a drink without abusing it, and a sop to the
conscience rather than an effective measure.
The immediate effects of excessive drinking are well known to the
majority of young people whose behaviour is the BMA’s primary concern.
They are less well informed about the cumulative effects of heavy
drinking, but since when has anyone under 25 ever thought long term?
Does the BMA really believe that in a social situation, a 19-year-old in
a pub will be influenced positively by a health warning on a bottle?
Would he/she turn to his/her mates and say: ’You know, I didn’t realise
too much of this stuff was actually bad for you.’
If there was any prospect of influencing the minority who have slipped
into regular excessive drinking which is dangerous to them and others,
warnings on drinks could be justified. But studies on alcohol abuse show
it is a complex problem, and alcoholism itself is the result of
biological, genetic, psychological and social causes. Health warnings
will just be ineffective.
So, why worry about a proposed intrusion into the lives of the millions
of people who enjoy a drink without abusing it?
Estimates of the numbers of persistent alcohol abusers vary - by its
nature the phenomenon is difficult to quantify and the numbers are
But few would question the fact that tens of millions of people drink
sensibly and lead healthy lives. It is not fair for these people to have
to endure guilt-inducing health warnings on brands that give them
All products are open to abuse, some more than others. On a recent visit
to Florida I was struck by the number of grossly fat people wandering
around the theme parks. They had clearly abused food, and were ’grazing’
as they hobbled around. There was nothing dangerous about what they were
eating, just the amount. So, should you and I have to read warnings on
food brands just in case we don’t know, or are insufficiently aware,
that eating too much can make you dangerously obese? Should we agonise
over whether or not each perfectly healthy meal that we tuck into
crosses that line between svelte and portly, or porky and obese?
My last criticism is that health warnings would be only a sop to our
public conscience. Their existence would imply that we believed becoming
an alcoholic was a rational decision. We could even say to the
casualties of excessive drinking that they were repeatedly warned.
That’s not really the motive behind the BMA’s support for this misguided
measure. But since it isn’t going to work, isn’t fair on the moderate
majority and is morally suspect, we shouldn’t do it.
Angus Fear is a managing partner of Roose & Partners.