Vice Squad
Friday, January 18, 2008
Finland Backing Off Warning Labels on Alcohol

Alcohol-related problems are severe in Finland, and became more so when the effective price of alcohol fell around the time of Estonia's EU accession and Finland's pre-emptive alcohol tax cut. The recent Finnish campaign to reduce the social costs of alcohol consumption has included higher taxes and a ban on volume discounts -- this latter measure not working out as planned. Also slated is a mandate that warning labels be placed on all alcohol containers. The labels would say, in Finnish and Swedish: "WARNING: Alcohol is hazardous to the development of the fetus and to your health". In the wake of some issues with the EU, however, the Finnish health minister wants to abandon the mandated warnings. Turns out, she never really thought that the warnings would be beneficial in the first place. And not just her -- it seems as if the parliamentarians who voted for the warning labels by and large didn't think they would work, either (though they were pretty into the "no volume discounts" provision).

My quick perusal of the evidence suggests that warning labels are not particularly good ways to reduce the social costs of alcohol; like the Finnish health minister says, taxes would be more effective. But warning labels are probably not completely futile, either. Here's a summary from one review of the relevant research*:
Taken together, the research on the design and content of warning label factors as well as on audience factors indicates that the effectiveness of warning labels on drinking behavior depends on how these factors initially impact underlying cognitive and affective processes. First, design factors influence whether warning labels are even initially noticed. Second, the specific content of warning labels could influence the labels' potential for evoking visceral avoidance responses. Third, audience factors predict differential memory for, processing of, and reactions to alcohol warning labels. These audience effects can then modify drinking behavior.
*"Alcohol counter-advertising and the media: a review of recent research." Alcohol Research & Health, Wntr, 2002, by Gina Agostinelli and Joel W. Grube.

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