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Doctors want alcohol warning labels to flag cancer risks

Researchers say warning labels for alcohol don't address drinking's biggest potential health consequence: cancer, including breast cancer. (Shuran Huang for The Washington Post)

If you drink alcohol, you’ve probably seen — or overlooked — warning labels on the back of bottles.

But those labels haven’t been updated since the late 1980s. Now, researchers say they don’t adequately advertise alcohol consumption’s biggest potential health consequence: cancer, including breast cancer.

In a perspective article in the New England Journal of Medicine, researchers warn that the labels are outdated and vague about alcohol consumption’s risks, despite the public health burden of drinking.

Few Americans know enough about those risks, they write, pointing to data that suggests nearly 70 percent of them don’t realize alcohol consumption increases cancer risk.

Sorry, wine lovers. No amount of alcohol is good for you, study says.

Though even moderate consumption carries risk, excessive alcohol use is more dangerous. Guidelines suggest alcohol intake should be limited to two drinks or less a day for men and one or less a day for women, but data suggests the majority of adult drinkers imbibe more.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that every year, excessive alcohol use shortens lives of those who died of it by an average of 26 years, and attributes 140,000 deaths to excessive alcohol use in 2019 alone. Long-term, excessive drinking can cause or exacerbate health problems such as liver disease, cancer and heart disease, mental health problems and risky pregnancies. Short-term overdrinking contributes to car crashes and suicide. The CDC attributes 1 in 10 deaths among adults ages 20 to 64 to heavy drinking.

Those are all good reasons to toughen up warning labels on beer, wine and spirits, the researchers write.

Though all alcohol must carry health warning statements thanks to a 1988 law, the researchers say the current label, which warns against drinking while pregnant or operating vehicles under the influence, “lacks all the key elements of evidence-based warning design.”

Larger text, more prominent placement on bottles and pictorial elements could help, they suggest, as could updating the warning language.

The researchers imagine roadblocks to implementation, from legislative quibbling to industry lawsuits. But even if new labels’ effect on overall consumption is small, they write, “We believe Americans deserve the opportunity to make well-informed decisions about their alcohol consumption.”

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