Most of us grew up with warning labels on products around the house.
We saw labels on things like cleaning products, bug spray, and rat poison. Some household items even had labels with the classic pirate’s skull and crossbones, letting us know that the contents were actual poison that could kill you if ingested.
All these labels are there for good reason: to protect public health.
However, some warning labels do seem rather absurd.
On fireworks, for instance:
“Light fuse and get away.”
That’s good advice, of course.
But does it really need to be written on a Roman Candle that’s about to shoot fireballs out one end?
Apparently, it does.
And that’s barely scratching the surface.
Believe it or not, there’s a book out there called “Remove Child Before Folding: The 101 Stupidest, Silliest, and Wackiest Warning Labels Ever” that catalogs the most ridiculous warning labels through the year 2007.
If you want a good laugh, have a look at that book.
We know warning labels are there for legal reasons. Manufacturers and businesses don’t want to get sued: when a woman won a multi-million-dollar case against McDonald’s over burns suffered after spilling a dangerously hot cup of coffee in her lap, warning labels began to appear on just about everything. To read about that case, click here. We’re poking fun at warnings, but there’s more to that case than meets the eye – have a look at the article.
But we digress.
Warnings are there for good reason.
Which brings us to a good question: do they work?
First, though, a quick primer on warning labels.
A History of Product Warning Labels in the U.S.
Although they’re part of our lives now, warning labels have on products are relatively new. The first hint of warning labels appeared in 1938, when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) passed a law that required food products carry a label listing all ingredients. The next step came in 1966, when federal guidelines required cigarette packages to carry the familiar Surgeon General’s Warning:
Caution: Cigarette Smoking May Be Hazardous to Your Health
In 1970, Congress passed a law banning tobacco advertising on television. Then, in 1973, Congress passed a law requiring three levels of warning labels on all products containing toxic substances, not just tobacco. Most of us are familiar with these warning labels:
- Level 1. CAUTION indicates a potential product hazard that may – if not avoided – result in minor or moderate injury.
- Level 2. WARNING indicates a potential product hazard the could – if not avoided – result in death or serious injury
- Level 3. DANGER indicate an imminent product hazard that will – if not avoided – result in death or serious injury.
In 1985, Tipper Gore and a group of concerned parents lobbied Congress to label music (at that time, the covers of albums and cassettes) that contained lyrics that were violent or sexually explicit. Record companies agreed to label targeted albums with the now-famous sticker:
In that case, it’s consensus that the warning backfired. Rebellious teens – most teens, actually – sought out albums with the stickers, because that was obviously where the rebel music was – in albums with lyrics so extreme they had to warn you about them.
Finally, in 1989, Congress passed a law requiring health warnings on all alcohol products – and that’s more or less where the current state of product warning labels rests, today, although various enhancements of the smoking warnings have been challenged by tobacco companies and subsequently struck down by the courts.
The Question at Hand: Do Warning Labels Work?
The research is not encouraging.
This article, published in 2006, was the first comprehensive analysis of warning labels published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal. It includes five separate meta-analyses, meaning the researchers analyzed data from multiple studies on each area of inquiry regarding warning labels and their relative effectiveness.
The study indicates something we hinted at, above, almost in jest: warning labels do a good job catching consumer attention and drawing their focus to that product. Researchers found labels that include graphical elements (i.e. pictures) work best at getting consumer attention. However, further analysis showed that when consumers did notice the labels, the rates at which they read, understood, and remembered the warning content was low. Like the labels on albums in the 80s, this data appears to indicate that warning labels do a good job getting the attention of a consumer, but don’t do a good job conveying the relevant information.
Practically speaking, that’s counterproductive, in that the label succeeds in drawing eyes to the product but fails to achieve its purpose: warning the consumer of an inherent danger.
While that paper presented discouraging data about warning labels in general, a research report published by the International Alliance for Responsible Drinking in 2019 presents data that brings us directly to the topic of this article:
Do warning labels on alcoholic beverages work?
The IARD Report + The 2017 Youth Alcohol Policy Survey
The IARD report pulls no punches.
Here’s what they have to say in the first paragraph of their summary of data:
“The evidence indicates that health warning labels do not have an impact on average alcohol consumption.”
That’s a simple “No” in answer to our question.
Study authors went on to indicate that:
“The evidence on the ability of health warning labels to affect young people’s drinking behavior, or to prevent drunk driving, is limited to a handful of observational studies and lab experiments.”
That’s why we got curious when a recent study published in the U.K. – based on The 2017 Youth Alcohol Policy Survey – offered further analysis on the effect of alcohol product warning labels on youth age 11-17. We know warning labels aren’t incredibly effective for the general population. We thought we’d gain more insight on whether they worked with regards to teens and alcohol products.
Well, we did gain more insight. But the findings were disappointingly simple and familiar.
The answer to the question “Do alcohol warning labels affect youth drinking behavior?” is straighforward:
That’s disappointing, especially when considered in light of the significant health risks associated with excess alcohol consumption. It’s more disappointing when we remember the study participants were adolescents, who are particularly vulnerable to the negative health effects of excess alcohol consumption.
The YAPS Data
Here’s what the data showed. In the month prior to answering survey questions:
- 68% of participants were unaware of any warning labels on alcohol products.
- 82% of participants who said they did not drink alcohol were unaware of any warning labels on alcohol products.
- 55% of participants who said they were current drinkers said they were unaware of any warning labels on alcohol products.
Of those who did recall seeing warning labels on alcohol products:
- 18% remembered the warning “Drink Responsibly”
- 13% remembered the warning “Don’t Drink During Pregnancy”
- 7% remembered warnings about health, personal, and social issues related to alcohol use
- 5% remembered the warning “Don’t Drink and Drive”
Those numbers are clearly the opposite of where we – and anyone concerned with the health and well-being of adolescents – want them to be.
This brings us to another question: if the labels aren’t working, what should teenagers know about the effects of alcohol consumption?
What Teens Should Know
The reason we keep saying the data about the effectiveness of the alcohol product warning labels is discouraging is because excess alcohol use has a wide range of negative effects on both the body and brain.
Teenagers should know that.
Teenagers and their parents should know all the facts. We’ve published several helpful articles on the topic: please click here, here, and here to read them. If you’re the parent of an adolescent, we encourage you have your adolescent read them, too.
We’ll summarize those articles below, in case you want to stay on this page rather than going off on a clicking adventure.
The Effect of Alcohol on Teen Brains and Bodies
Second, alcohol consumption – especially chronic consumption at high levels – can cause damage to the major organs. Alcohol can damage the liver, heart, kidneys, and pancreas. Research also links excessive alcohol consumption to a higher risk of various forms of cancer.
Finally, research indicates that alcohol can cause problems in the developing adolescent brain. Alcohol can change both the physiological structure (size, volume, etc.) and practical function (how it works) of the brain.
Physiologically speaking, alcohol can have a negative impact on the following brain areas:
- Hippocampus: The hippocampus plays a major role in memory formation, movement, and spatial orientation.
- Amygdala: The amygdala is part of the limbic system, which governs our emotions, responses to external stimuli, and some behavior. The amygdala and limbic system are key players in the activation of our “fight or flight” reflex.
- Prefrontal Cortex: This is the executive function center of the brain. It regulates decision-making, planning, language, rational judgment, and impulse control.
Functionally speaking, alcohol can have an impact on:
- Memory formation
- Movement and spatial awareness
- Language learning
- Impulse control
- Decision making
- Risk assessment
- Overall cognitive function
These are the reasons why we need teens to know that the decision to start drinking is not to be taken lightly: while we assume teens hear and understand our warnings, as adults, and further, we likely also assume teens read and understand the warning labels on alcohol products, it appears reality does not match our assumptions.
The labels, bluntly stated, do not work.
That’s why it’s up to parents, teachers, school administrators, and anyone who plays a significant role in the life of an adolescent needs to make sure they know the truth: alcohol consumption can be dangerous.
That’s not up for debate – the stats are in, the research completed.
The facts speak for themselves.
Angus is a writer from Atlanta, GA who writes about behavioral health, adolescent development, education, and mindfulness practices like yoga, tai chi, and meditation.