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Do Health Warning Labels on Alcohol and Snacks Limit Consumption?

Image-and-text health warning labels (HWLs), similar to those on cigarette boxes, show potential for reducing the consumption of alcoholic drinks and high-calorie snacks, according to a new study published in the open access journal BMC Public Health.

HWLs using gruesome images and text to show the negative health effects of smoking have been deemed effective and acceptable for changing smoking-related outcomes.

However, evidence is limited regarding the usefulness of HWLs for reducing the consumption of alcohol and energy-dense foods like chocolate bars or potato chips.

A team of researchers at the Universities of Cambridge and Bristol in the U.K. conducted two online studies with different participants, asking them to rate varying image-and-text HWLs on alcoholic drinks (5,528 participants) or energy-dense snacks (4,618 participants).

“To our knowledge, these are the first large-scale studies in general populations to examine the potential effectiveness and acceptability of image-and-text health warning labels on alcohol and on snack foods,” said Dr. Gareth Hollands, the corresponding author.

“Prior research in this area has typically either looked at these warning labels on sugary drinks, or used smaller or less representative samples.”

U.K. participants for the alcohol study were recruited if they self-reported consuming either beer or wine at least once a week. A total of 5,528 people were shown an image of a bottle of beer or wine labeled with one of 21 possible HWLs depicting the negative health consequences of alcohol consumption.

Participants were asked how afraid, worried, uncomfortable or disgusted the label made them feel, to rate their desire to consume the product, and how strongly they supported putting the label on alcoholic drinks.

For the food study, participants were recruited if they self-reported that they consumed biscuits, cake, chips or chocolate at least once a week, and liked chocolate. A total of 4,618 people were shown an image of a chocolate bar labeled with one of 18 possible HWLs illustrating the adverse health consequences of obesity and related conditions, caused by excess calorie consumption.

The authors found that HWLs on alcoholic drinks depicting bowel cancer, followed by those showing liver cancer were associated with the highest level of negative emotions — fear, disgust, discomfort and worry — and the lowest desire to consume the product.

In general, few of the alcohol HWLs were considered acceptable, with only three out of 21 rated at least somewhat acceptable.

HWLs on high-density snacks depicting bowel cancer, followed by those depicting non-specific cancer were associated with the highest level of negative emotions and lowest desire to consume the product, with those depicting bowel cancer considered to be the least acceptable.

HWLs on energy-dense snacks were judged on average more acceptable than those on alcohol, with 13 out of 18 snack HWLs rated as at least somewhat acceptable.

The authors suggest that the response to labels depicting bowel cancer HWLs may indicate those that have the greatest potential for reducing alcohol and snack food selection and consumption.

“The finding that health warning labels may be judged to be relatively more acceptable to use on snack foods, than on alcohol, could be due to heightened public awareness of the health consequences of excess energy intake and obesity, particularly in children. In general, however, many of the participants expressed negative views of the possible use of such labels,” said Hollands.

The authors warn that the study did not demonstrate whether negative emotional arousal and impacts on desire to consume are actually effective in changing behavior. And since the research was conducted online, responses may differ when HWLs are applied to physical products in real-world settings.

More research is needed to investigate the real-world potential of these labels to reduce selection and consumption of alcohol and energy-dense snacks.

Source: BMC (BioMed Central)

Do Health Warning Labels on Alcohol and Snacks Limit Consumption?

Traci Pedersen

Traci Pedersen is a professional writer with over a decade of experience. Her work consists of writing for both print and online publishers in a variety of genres including science chapter books, college and career articles, and elementary school curriculum.

APA Reference
Pedersen, T. (2020). Do Health Warning Labels on Alcohol and Snacks Limit Consumption?. Psych Central. Retrieved on July 4, 2020, from https://psychcentral.com/news/2020/04/05/do-health-warning-labels-on-alcohol-and-snacks-limit-consumption/155510.html
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 5 Apr 2020 (Originally: 5 Apr 2020)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 5 Apr 2020
Published on Psych Central.com. All rights reserved.