Policy proposal: Nutritional Information on Alcohol

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The UK currently faces two pressing public health challenges. The first is that an increasing number of British people are becoming obese; in 1993 just 13% of men and 16% of women were classed as obese – by 2011 the numbers had risen to 24% and 26% respectively.[1] Despite the fact that the NHS state that since 2001 “there has been a much slower rate of increase”[2] in the level of obesity, the public are still paying the price for their gluttony. Figures from the Government Office for Science report into the future trends in obesity show that by 2015 the ‘estimated costs of obesity’ will reach £3.9bn per year, rising to £5.3bn in 2025 and £7.1bn in 2050.[3] The wider costs of ‘elevated BMI’ generally would be £27bn, £37.2bn, and £49.9bn respectively.[4]

Clearly, something needs to be done to tackle this massive drain on public finances.

The second problem is probably clear to anybody who wanders through a city centre on a Friday night – alcohol consumption is up. Despite the fact that between 1990 and 2009 the average alcohol consumption in OECD fell by 9%, the Brits bucked the trend and saw a rise in consumption of 9%.[5] This rise comes with its own demands on public finances – alcohol misuse in England alone costs £21bn per year.[6]

There have been recent attempts to reduce alcohol consumption through a minimum pricing initiative per unit of alcohol – however, all this would do is price the poor out of alcohol and hit people who just fancy a few drinks at the end of the week. Indeed, the policy seems even more pointless following Alcohol Concern’s claims that households from the highest income quintile are “twice as likely to drink heavily as adults in lowest income quintile – 22% compared to 10%”.[7] Clearly a minimum price would have a minimal impact on this segment of society.

There is another policy, however, that could make a difference to patterns of both alcohol consumption and obesity levels. In an age of instant data and calorie counting, we often take for granted the ability to know how many calories are in our food and drink – but we are not surprised to find there is no such information on a bottle of wine. This article argues that nutritional information on alcoholic drinks would empower consumers to make sensible decisions when consuming alcohol, and help tackle both problems of alcohol consumption, and through lower calorie intake, obesity (ceteris paribus).

There is a general ignorance surrounding the calorie content of drinks – not many people would know, for example, that a standard pint of beer has 170 calories, or a bottle of WKD contains 237 calories – which is over 10% of one’s recommended intake.[8]  A bottle of wine – standard pre-drinks for many students – can contain anything between 500 – 700 calories, whilst a quad-vod with coke has 359 calories. No wonder your Corp shirt gets a bit tight by Christmas.

With nutrition information labels already rolled out on food and non-alcoholic drink products, it would be sensible to examine what has occurred there. The evidence seems to support its introduction. One MA thesis report finds that whilst calorie information does not alter choices, it “does influence the amount people eat.”[9] Perhaps this is ideal when concerned with alcohol – nobody wants a spoilsport nanny state stopping them doing what they want to do, unwinding with a few drinks – but it may reduce consumptions levels of heavier drinkers. Another report, from the American Journal of Public Health, claimed that “calorie labels on restaurant menus impacted food choices and intake”, but that “adding a recommended daily caloric requirement label increased this effect, suggesting menu label legislation should require such a label.”[10] This is another example of people looking at the evidence before them and making a beneficial decision for themselves, based on their own self-interest. Happily, society benefits too.

One counter argument is that it would encourage people looking to get drunk onto lower calories per unit options, such as vodka – 55 calories a shot, in case you were wondering. This is a misguided view to take of the problem, since those with the view to get absolutely smashed would probably drink anything anyway, and so out of a choice of two bad options, the lower calorie option is still the least-bad.

Overall, this policy – even if, despite the evidence, it doesn’t actually reduce net alcohol consumption and thus obesity – would still have the effect of allowing the British people to choose to reduce their alcohol intake and so consume fewer calories, rather than hitting them in the wallet via a regressive alcohol tax. It would empower people to make informed decisions, not just about calories, but sugar and salt, and let them know what really is in their tipple.

Written by David Jeffrey, edited by Finlay Green