Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Oops - Alcohol Labeling Backfires

ResearchBlogging.orgThe alcohol industry decided to make it clear exactly how much alcohol was in their products. The theory was that visible, easy-to-read labels would promote responsible drinking by allowing consumers to make informed decisions about the drinks they're about make. But according to a a new study published in the Drug and Alcohol Review Journal, the plan has backfired.

In Australia, like other developed countries, drinking has become a big problem among the younger generation. From 1993-2002, over 2500 young people (15-24) have died from alcohol-attributable injury and disease, with another 100,000 hospitalized. In light of the rising concerns about excessive drinking, the Australian alcohol industry announced a plan that introduced more visible standard drink labels. Scientists from the University of Wollongong wanted to know - did those labels actually make drinkers more responsible?

So they asked college students about their drinking habits and how much they utitlize alcohol labels. Six focus groups of students had similar answers: the majority of the participants are aware of the existence of standard drink labelling, notice standard drink labels and take these into account when choosing what to purchase. But they don't do so to make sure they have responsible control over the alochol they consume. Instead, they do so to get the best 'bang for their buck'. In other words, they use the labels to pick the most amount of alcohol at the lowest price.

Instead of supporting healthy drinking habits, standardized labelling actually serves to facilitate if not increase heavy drinking amoung young people. The authors caution that any changes to alcohol labeling must be well thought out and very careful.

"There is a need to consider the deeper implications about alcohol packaging and marketing," says the lead author, Sandra Jones, in a press release. "While earlier research with adult beer and alcohol drinkers has shown that standard drink labeling enables them to drink safely and responsibly, this motivation is not evident in the consumption choices with young drinkers and might even be counter-productive."

It looks like the alcohol industry will have to go back to the drawing board when it comes to reducing excessive drinking behavior. These kids these days, they're just too clever - they'll use whatever information they can to get drunk off their asses as quickly as possible.

Honestly, this doesn't shock me much. When I was in college, I knew someone who distilled their own grain alcohol from the cheapest vodka they could find. The stuff ended up close to 100% ethanol - and lots of people would drink it. I also know someone who spent a week in the hospital for alcohol poisoning and still has liver problems to this day. A good part of his popularity and reputation revolved around excessive drinking. The problem isn't the alcohol labelling, it's the culture in which this kind of behavior has become normal or even expected, let alone popularized and respected. It's the culture that needs to be changed.

SANDRA C. JONES, & PARRI GREGORY (2009). The impact of more visible standard drink labelling on youth alcohol consumption: Helping young people drink (ir)responsibly?
Drug and Alcohol Review, 28 (3), 230-234 DOI: 10.1111/j.1465-3362.2008.00020.x


Stephanie B said...

I agree with you. When I was in college, I heard of "great" frat parties where they'd set out large barrels to puke in. You were only ejected from the party after you'd puked on three seperate occasions.

Does that sound healthy? Fun? Entertaining?

Fortunately for me, I was never tempted, though, admittedly, I'm very sensitive to the taste of alcohol and dislike it intensely. Still, I can't imagine the mindset that thinks doing that to your body on a regular basis has any merit.

But a lot of people, particularly young ones, do. On the other hand, a lot of people older than I am have the same tendencies.

Shakespeare said...

It still astonishes me how many "adults" have to get drunk to have a good time. Yet they don't remember it afterwards...

How much sense does that make?

Then again, kids have taught me the uses of alcohol... and a drink now and then can have a great effect. The whole puking thing has to go, though, along with drinking until you get a hangover. How is any of that fun?

WhySharksMatter said...

Stephanie, your anecdote makes little sense. No one at a "great" frat party is paying any attention to how many times a given person is puking. Even if there were party monitors, there are too many people at a "great" party to remember who has puked how many times.

Your overall point remains valid, though. There are better ways to have fun.

tideliar said...

Another "surprise" where well meant sociological interference, without empirical evidence, backfires.

c.f. cracking down on marijuana usage in prisons (increase in heroin usage)

Stephanie B said...

WhySharksMatter - you're probably right. I was told this by an eager young freshman the next day (yes, underage) and that he stayed for the "whole thing" because he only puked twice.


I never went to drinking parties except as a designated driver and I dragged my friends out before anything got to this stage. The story my friend told me was sufficient to keep me from a frat party in person.

Our university was notorious and, I think, legally chastised for these freshman frat nightmares later.

I gotta say, though, I doubt they've disappeared.

Phyl said...

Could it also be a matter of the younger generation consistently having to learn the same lesson the older generation did? It seems to me that no one in a younger generation really believes the older crowd understands them or really has anything valid to say. The wisdom (and change in practices) only come with hard experience.

It was like that for my university crowd too, back in the 80s.

Carson F. Ball said...

I realize that the scientific method would dictate that a variable be changed (in this case better labeling), the results are collected (the poll of college students), and then a conclusion is reached.

However, in this case, I think it would be pretty obvious that college students are going to use the label to find the highest proof beverage that they can.