Whitehorse Daily Star

Image title

Photo by Whitehorse Star

MEASURE ANNOUNCED, THEN SUSPENDED – John Streicker, the minister responsible for the Yukon Liquor Corp., announces the labelling plan at a Nov. 22 news conference at the Whitehorse liquor store.

Alcohol industry serves up dilemma for minister

Few would dispute that John Streicker is in a very challenging position.

By Taylor Blewett on January 5, 2018

Few would dispute that John Streicker is in a very challenging position.

As the minister responsible for the Yukon Liquor Corp., he’s also responsible for mediating the future of the Northern Territories Alcohol Study, the nationally-lauded, nationally-maligned experiment that saw cancer warnings and moderate drinking suggestions affixed to bottles and cans in the Whitehorse liquor store.

On one side, he’s been working with researchers Erin Hobin and Tim Stockwell through the evolution of the study designed to assess the impacts of alcohol labelling on consumer attitudes and behaviours.

After years of planning and more than $700,000 in Health Canada funding, the researchers saw the Yukon Liquor Corp. push pause on the labelling phase of the study one month into what was supposed to be an eight-month run.

The liquor corporation’s motivation for doing so comprises the other side of Streicker’s dilemma – three of the biggest players in the alcohol industry shared concerns about the study and its labels.

Beer Canada, Spirits Canada and the Canadian Vintners Association are trade associations that represent major alcohol brands.

The Star interviewed the presidents of each association to determine what, exactly, they’re concerned about.

Jan Westcott of Spirits Canada was in the Yukon for a short visit recently.

“One of the things that struck me was, I was chatting with people … the different communities in the Yukon, and how many of them don’t speak English very well.

“You have a lot of different languages up there. Are labels in English the best way to reach populations, particularly some vulnerable populations? I’m not sure.”

Westcott also said the content of the label that reads “alcohol can cause cancer, including breast and colon cancers” is scientifically debatable.

“We’re not very happy with the presentation that drinking alcohol in moderate or light amounts causes cancer. There’s really no evidence of causality; there’s some correlation evidence.”

Dan Paszkowski, of the Canadian Vintners Association, explained that he participated in the development of Canada’s Low-Risk Alcohol Drinking Guidelines.

The guidelines inform the study’s second label, which encourages female consumers to limit themselves to two drinks a day and males to three, with two or more non-drinking days every week to reduce health risks.

The low-risk drinking guidelines are complex, and were not created for inclusion on labels, Paszkowski said.

There’s even some concern the label might encourage light or non-drinkers to increase their consumption, according to Paszkowski.

Luke Harford of Beer Canada cited a similar worry about the misinterpretation of the low-risk drinking guidelines in label form. They could potentially be taken to mean it’s safe to drink this amount before driving, he said.

All three association presidents stressed that the health of consumers is always a priority, and that they have spent years working on initiatives to this end.

“There’s this perception that the whole industry is simply engaged in selling more and more and more… and getting people to drink more. That’s absolutely not true.

“Our vested interest is making sure that we have consumers and customers that can use our products on a safe and regular basis,” Westcott told the Star.

“We do not accept this idea that there’s a monopoly on concern about the welfare of the people using our products.”

The presidents and one of the study’s researchers have at least one other area of apparent common ground.

All three sit on the National Alcohol Strategy Advisory Committee with Stockwell, who, along with being one of the study’s lead researchers, is the director of the Canadian Institute for Substance Use Research at the University of Victoria.

The presidents pointed out that the committee wasn’t consulted about the study, and that’s another concern.

“There isn’t opposition to labelling per se, but the way that the labels were selected without consultation with industry and without consultation with the National Alcohol Strategy Advisory Committee that has expertise to ensure that the labels are accurate, and beneficial,” Paszkowski said.

Stockwell said there’s absolutely no obligation for researchers to consult with industry before initiating a public health study like this one, and there was no motivation to voluntarily do so in this case.

“We know we’d never get consent from them to go and do this, because like the tobacco industry, they just want to fight tooth-and-nail against the consumers having these kind of warnings on their products,” he told the Star.

Westcott said he resents the comparison, which some people have been making publicly since the study and its pause began to draw national attention.

“There’s a segment of people out there that continue to want to say to people that alcohol and tobacco are the same thing,” he said.

“I’m sorry – there is no safe way to smoke a cigarette. We believe there is a safe way to have a drink. We also believe that there is a healthy way to have a drink.”

Stockwell pointed out that the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer classifies alcohol as a carcinogen.

His research partner, Hobin, also noted that the study had to receive approval from the institutions they work for – the University of Victoria and Public Health Ontario – and relies on peer-reviewed literature.

“From a professional perspective, I believe that effective policy relies on independent science to identify the causes and solutions to health issues, and try and keep an arm’s-length away from industry,” she told the Star.

She also pointed out that in the Yukon and the Northwest Territories – the two jurisdictions participating in the study as the experimental and control groups – interest in the labels was evident.

The researchers conducted a baseline survey of 900 drinkers in both territories before the labelling phase began.

Results showed that up to 75 per cent of respondents were not aware that alcohol can cause cancer, according to Hobin, and a majority were in favour of health warning labels on alcohol containers describing the link between the two.

The irony here, as Stockwell pointed out, is that this study was supposed to be exactly that – not a permanent change, but a public policy experiment.

“As it’s a new study, let’s wait and see what the results are, and then let’s discuss them. I think it’s self-defeating, really, to stifle knowledge being developed.”

Dr. Brendan Hanley, the Yukon’s chief medical officer of health – whose personal endorsement of the cancer message is included on the study label – said he was disappointed to see the study paused, but understands why the Yukon Liquor Corp. had to make the difficult decision.

As Streicker pointed out in an interview with the Star Wednesday, the Yukon is the only Canadian jurisdiction that opted to participate in the labelling experiment.

Every other provincial and territorial liquor association was approached before the study began, Stockwell confirmed. The Yukon was the sole labelling volunteer (the N.W.T. is the study’s control group, so no labels were utilized there).

The Yukon Liquor Corp. believed and continues to believe in the science behind the study and its legal right to participate, Streicker said, and pausing the study wasn’t its preferred outcome.

But, as Hanley pointed out, “it ends up being a risk management strategy.”

The territory is facing industry giants which have aired concerns about legislative authority, trademark infringement and defamation, according to comments from the liquor corporation when the study’s pause was made public in the Star last month.

Whether litigation is a real possibility remains up in the air.

All three industry association presidents told the Star they did not threaten the liquor corporation with legal action.

Stockwell also said he believes doing so “would be a public relations disaster.

“It’s something that I think angers people at a very basic level, that the public is denied information that they think should be on these products.”

Streicker had a different instinct.

“I think there is a real chance that we’re going to not find common ground between the researchers and the national (associations), and then that means that we’ll be left with a very difficult choice.

“And that choice is whether to risk litigation, and if litigation comes, then to pay for that.”

When asked how they’d like to see their concerns about the study resolved, Harford and Westcott said they’d like to see the study end, and the conversation about labelling continue, with industry.

Paszkowski said some compromise could be reached that would allow the study to continue, as long as industry is consulted.

Talks were scheduled with the Yukon Liquor Corp. today.

According to Streicker, the corporation has an obligation to residents of the territory to promote safe and responsible drinking. He now faces a decision about the best way to fulfill that mandate.

The liquor corporation could participate in a modified version of the study more amenable to industry. But that’s not ideal, Hobin explained. Alterations to the study could affect the integrity of its results.

A complete withdrawal from the study is a second possibility. The threat of litigation, real or not, would likely vanish.

As well, rather than potentially spending money on legal fees, the liquor corporation could fund public education and other programs designed to reduce alcohol-related harms, Streicker explained.

Finally, the liquor corporation and the researchers could push forward with the study, industry dismay be damned.

That would be ideal, according to the chief medical officer of health, if the Yukon had a powerful ally by its side – Health Canada.

The study’s source of funding has seemingly been exempt from the conversation and controversy surrounding it.

The Star wasn’t able to secure an interview with a Health Canada representative before this afternoon’s deadline.

“We need to put public health in the driver’s seat of public policy, and not industry,” Hanley said. Support from the federal government could enable that.

“It would give Yukon the confidence to say, ‘We don’t think they’re going to sue, they say they’re not going to sue, and we will go ahead, but if there are legal consequences, we’re not alone.

“I think it’s great that Yukon is carrying the flag for this, but it would be preferable that this were a national initiative.”

Streicker, meanwhile, might have to choose a path forward for the study sooner rather than later.

“We’ll make our decisions and face criticism based on trying to do the best that we can for our citizens. And that’s about safe and responsible drinking,” he said.

Comments (13)

Up 0 Down 0

a person on Jan 11, 2018 at 11:11 pm

Okay, I just read all the other comments. Maybe this labeling project is hopeless and a waste of money not to mention creating more plastic. The alcohol industry does not think so though. They are threatening legal action, talking about how their image is being ruined. I'll set that aside. They're probably worried about a reduction in drinking by the moderate drinkers, not the hard core alcoholics who the labels are most trying to reach.

Go ahead and get rid of the labels then, save some money, save some garbage. But do not do it because you are afraid of getting sued! That is weak and a betrayal of Yukoners.

Up 0 Down 0

a person on Jan 11, 2018 at 11:06 pm

John Streicker running scared in case we get sued by the booze industry.

Who should be suing whom? We have about the highest rate of alcohol consumption in the country and the health, crime and social problems to go with it including lots and lots of kids, adults and babies with pickled brains.

Let's go to court!

No, the alcohol industry would not dare open that can of worms. I am a moderate drinker, I enjoy a beer, a glass of wine, the occasional mixed drink. I go to the bars now and then. I also recognize that we have to put a damper on the 'enjoyment of alcohol' if that's what it is when you tell people plain and simple the risks.

Mr. Streicker does not have the courage he needs for his job. He has other qualities, but being a 'peace maker' and collaborating and compromising with the booze producers and their associations and retail arms is not the priority when you are on a public awareness campaign in a territory with the problems we have based on alcohol consumption.

Up 2 Down 0

Groucho d'North on Jan 10, 2018 at 11:08 am

Consider for a moment all the potential risks we encounter in the course of a day in our modern world. Tripping over the cat or toys the kids have left out, slipping in the bath tub - according to the CDC about two-thirds of accidental injuries happen in the bathtub or shower. There are others too of course, like spoiled or contaminated food we may eat, viruses we can contract from a doorknob or a telephone. My point is there are numerous risks we face each day and the majority of these do not have warning advisories posted on them of any kind.
Occasionally a civil case will find its way, like the McDonalds Hot Coffee scandal, into the media and new warning labels will be created due to court decisions. Perhaps government feels that because they benefit from taxes and mark-up on the booze they sell they are somehow responsible for how people consume the product, and need to provide warnings to consumers? Why stop there?
The recent promotion to deal with residential radon is a case in point. In Canada more people die from being struck in cross-walks than from the effects of radon in the home, yet substantial budgets were created to educate Canadians to this potential hazard. Why? To be seen to be doing is my guess. By promoting safety for a low-level risk like radon, Health Canada can say they are combating cancer, while not ticking off the tobacco industry which provides the government with substantial revenue from the taxing of tobacco products.
It’s simple and easy to say this is an awareness campaign so that consumers are made aware of all the risks associated with drinking, well and good, but how will they know if it is working or not? Studies to track the effectiveness of the pregnancy stickers were never made - another awareness project, so how does government determine how well their promotions and expenditures are performing? Corporate management guru Peter Drucker says,” If you are not measuring - you are not managing.”

Up 3 Down 2

Lost In the Yukon on Jan 9, 2018 at 6:26 pm

Well we can all sleep contently knowing that Health and Social Services' Alcohol and Drug Program is spending money hand over fist to eliminate alcohol addiction in the Territory ... and they have been doing that for the past 25 years. Good job folks. Money well spent.

Up 1 Down 8

BnR on Jan 6, 2018 at 8:40 am

Grown Up said:
"Oppressing people with endless regulations, extortion and rules is what leads people into misery & despair, not the fact that beer, wine and spirits exist.... change the conditions to allow for prosperity and behaviors of people will change naturally"
Sounds like a republican speaking point. "Taking away people's health care gives the people more choices!"
Is that you Paul Ryan???

Up 8 Down 2

moose101 on Jan 6, 2018 at 6:01 am

We all know the labeling is for one segment of our society. No matter how many labels you put on it will not make any difference to them at all, It's just a political correct way to say we tried .

Up 5 Down 1

Gringo on Jan 5, 2018 at 9:52 pm

I never saw any stickers on any of the game of thrones goblets, not sure if it would have changed their approach.

Up 8 Down 2

Karl on Jan 5, 2018 at 8:09 pm

Take a minute and check out one of these stickers. It isn't a cheap paper sticker, it's some tough plastic/mylar monstrosity that was intended to prevent tearing or peeling off. Probably not cheap and certainly a waste of my tax dollars.

Up 8 Down 2

Juniper Jackson on Jan 5, 2018 at 5:17 pm

Well.. Liberals threw a lot of tax dollars at this.. they are going to do their damnedest to justify that, especially since the anticipated pat on the back failed to materialize. The question would be..is this the best use of our tax dollars? For me, that would be a no. I don't think there is any one left alive on the planet that doesn't know about pregnancy and drinking and FAE/FAS babies... and how many babies a year are still being born to this totally, 100% syndrome? Oh yeah..but a label on a bottle is going to save even 1? uh huh...

Grownup truly has the right of it.. there is so much legislation that it has turned into oppression...Mr. Streiker wanted power so bad he change parties, affiliations and just kept trying until he got voted in. Now he's up there pushing labels on bottles... was he the best use of taxpayer money? are any of them?

Up 7 Down 1

yukon rob on Jan 5, 2018 at 5:05 pm

This political! Look at your food, full of carcinogins, There is an argument to be made that soda, fast food and all processed foods, even the ones on your pantry shelves in every major grocer should than have limit and warning labels. Somehow, the government doesn't get involved. People do not always drink everyday, but I guarantee you they eat everyday. And this also creates a much larger vulnerable population, the middle class, the seniors and the poor, because of budgets are left with no choice but to eat these foods that do not carry warning labels or limit labels. This is political!

Up 2 Down 7

Highest drinking rate per capita in Canada--Party on! on Jan 5, 2018 at 3:29 pm

Party on, Yukon. We have the highest alcohol consumption rate per capita (yes, in all of Canada) so why let everybody know of some of the potential side effects of alcohol consumption? The alcohol industry would love to keep all of the alchies who love to blow back drinks 3x a week going strong, so no deterrence, thanks. Linked to breast cancer, colon cancer and other cancers. Carcinogenic. But don't believe stats....believe in big industry. Same argument with tobacco and many argue how weed is benign too. If you eat s$%tty food, smoke dubies, drink alcohol and do other unhealthy behaviours, expect there to be negative side effects.

Up 11 Down 3

CJ on Jan 5, 2018 at 3:29 pm

The more the researchers air their point of view, the less sympathy I feel and the more sense the industry representatives make. They spent years developing this study? Maybe I'm wrong, but it essentially seems to be an attempt to measure how effective the informational campaign is, which could take years, of course. Surely this isn't the only avenue to find out how consumers' behaviour is impacted by this medium. It's essentially an advertising campaign.

Common sense says when you attach detailed figures -- such as limiting drinks to one or three or whatever they said -- they will almost immediately be challenged.

And I actually have some sympathy when the industry reps object to being lumped in with the tobacco industry, which seems an erroneous association. While alcohol causes a host of social problems, no doubt about it, I don't recall any history on the part of the industry to deliberately suppress conclusions about health or deny that it's part of a substance abuse problem. If they challenge the cancer stats, well, so do I. Saying so on a bottle doesn't turn me into a believer. I suspect the relationship is much more complicated than the medium allows.

But if you're going to plaster someone's product without a heads up, I can't blame them for pushing back. Personally, I think the labelling eventually becomes background noise, and while the message might be internalized, the specifics aren't, necessarily. So spending more time on the message doesn't seem the worst thing in the world.

It's a sign of the times, isn't it, that a strategy would turn to public relations, rather than the harder (and no doubt more expensive) work on the ground that these intractable problems cry out for.

Up 10 Down 2

grown up on Jan 5, 2018 at 3:25 pm

Enough with the nanny state. 'initiatives' like this are just a great way of wasting precious time and money on useless efforts that drive up costs and only justify inflated budgets.

I'm sure those who had to put these stupid stickers on every bottle hated doing so - i would argue that repetitive strain injuries were a far greater actual risk than any dreamy benefit of wasting countless hours daily attaching the silly stickers...
If people don't learn from their life experiences, stickers sure won't change their mind.

Oppressing people with endless regulations, extortion and rules is what leads people into misery & despair, not the fact that beer, wine and spirits exist.... change the conditions to allow for prosperity and behaviors of people will change naturally.

Move on, stop wasting extorted tax revenues on useless special projects that provide 0 benefit other than inflating someone's ego.

Add your comments or reply via Twitter @whitehorsestar

In order to encourage thoughtful and responsible discussion, website comments will not be visible until a moderator approves them. Please add comments judiciously and refrain from maligning any individual or institution. Read about our user comment and privacy policies.

Your name and email address are required before your comment is posted. Otherwise, your comment will not be posted.