The possibility of graphic warning photographs and plain packaging appearing on bottles of alcohol, akin to the restrictions on tobacco that assume full force in May is being contemplated by Jared Brown, co-founder and master distiller behind Sipsmith, the micro-distillery in the vanguard of the craft gin movement in the UK.
“Are they considering similar labels for bacon? Fish and chips? Crisps?” he demands. “It’s an absurdity. It will crush the craft side of the industry. It will shift the business back to the industrial producers, who will be very happy to move people back to mass-produced drinks. If something like this comes through we won’t be able to weather it.”
Bottles of alcohol could be sold in plain packaging and carry larger health warnings, including photographic warning labels, suggested a report from the government advisory body Public Health England in December.
To emphasise the risks associated with excessive drinking a study last week by the University of Liverpool recommended placing warning labels on the front of bottles and using plain packaging and this month, public health groups called for a ban on all alcohol advertising in the UK.
A pregnancy warning, the chief medical officer’s alcohol guidelines and the unit alcohol content need to included in a warning label under a voluntary “responsibility deal” that is applicable for the drinks industry although under current arrangements, there are no mandatory requirements for alcohol labeling. Self-regulation and the use of labels with questionable effectiveness is not enough for some campaigners and health professionals.
‘If you remove branding and packaging, people will trade down in terms of quality,’ says craft spirit branding specialist Michael Vachon. Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo
“There’s been a long and sorry history of the drinks industry drawing up voluntary agreements with government and failing to deliver,” said Professor Sir Ian Gilmore, who chairs the Alcohol Health Alliance. “There needs to be proper balanced information about the calorie content, health risks and guidelines. The public has a right to know that there is a significant link between alcohol and some cancers.”
Self-regulation does have teeth, argues Sarah Hanratty, interim chief executive of the Portman Group, which administers the industry’s code of practice and set up the Drinkaware website. “There are strong commercial sanctions for companies that break the rules and products can be removed from shelves,” she said. “Banning alcohol marketing or calling for plain packaging is not the answer and will only serve to damage Britain’s thriving creative industries.”
The design sector has already voiced alarm at the possibility of plain packaging and warning labels. “What would a beautiful bar look like if the back bar was all plain packaging?” asked designer and brand consultant Ron Cregan, who has worked in the industry for over 25 years. “Would the iconic shape of the champagne bottle have to change?”
There is nothing self-righteous about his work, says Chris Record, a liver specialist at Newcastle University who started the campaign for better labelling on alcohol products in 2004.
“We’re not temperance people at all,” he said. “We don’t mind people drinking, we just don’t want them to drink excessively and the only way to get this message across is to give them the information. The public has a right to know. We don’t want to interfere with their branding. We just want them to provide the information which they have failed to do voluntarily, so it needs to be mandatory in some form.”
(Adapted from The Guardian)