After industry concerns brought the Northern Territories Alcohol Study to a halt in December, the Yukon Liquor Corp. (YLC) has decided to resurrect the
alcohol container labelling research – with some major alterations.
The controversial label that warned of the link between alcohol consumption and cancer has been retired, permanently.
Two labels that explain low-risk drinking guidelines and standard drink sizes will be applied to alcohol containers in the Whitehorse liquor store.
Unlike the study’s first iteration, however, this research phase will see some alcohol products exempt from labelling.
The Star first learned about this revised approach in a Thursday afternoon interview with Tim Stockwell. He’s one of the study’s lead researchers and the director of the Canadian Institute for Substance Use Research at the University of Victoria.
“The labels are going to be put on a limited range of products,” Stockwell said in an interview.
“The common, most usual sizes and most popular brands. And I think some local products will be exempt completely.
“We know the local producers were really upset, and of course they’re closer to home and maybe can cause more difficulties for the Yukon government, so I think there was always a wish to placate them, within the liquor corporation.”
John Streicker, the minister responsible for the YLC, subsequently confirmed that small alcohol producers, including local ones, will not see study labels
affixed to their products.
This information was not shared at a Thursday press conference about the decision to restart the study, nor the press release that was distributed shortly after.
The study’s month-long run in late 2017 saw all bottles and cans in the Whitehorse liquor store being labelled.
Streicker explained the rationale behind restricting the study’s labelling to the Star in an interview Friday morning.
The label that outlines standard drink sizes was not included in the study’s first go-around. It’s fairly complicated, Streicker said, and will advise how many standard drinks are in an alcohol container.
“I don’t want us to get any labels wrong. That’s what we’re trying to focus on. We’re just using a simplified set of products, and so we just said, ‘OK, we’re not going to include small producers.’ ”
To avoid trademark infringement, it was determined that smaller liquor bottles should also be excused from labelling, the minister explained.
Recycling was another consideration.
“It turns out ... the labels have a really high tack. They’re very sticky, So we’re thinking about that. We don’t want to have other adverse effects.”
The tack is most problematic for aluminum cans, so these will also go label-less, according to Streicker.
The YLC is not able to provide a specific list of the products that will or will not be labelled.
Those details are still being worked out by the corporation and the study’s researchers.
The Star asked the minister if he’s concerned that large liquor producers or industry associations will denounce the label restrictions as preferential treatment for the local industry.
“I think that it’s fair to say that producers are not supportive of us putting labels on, right?
“So are they going to be more upset? I’m sorry, I don’t know an answer to that question.”
The Star could not reach the Canadian Vintners Association nor Spirits Canada for interview prior to deadline this afternoon.
Luke Harford, president of Beer Canada, declined to comment.
It was protest from these industry associations that led to the study’s pause in December. While their concerns focused mainly on the cancer warning label, they raised issues with the study’s other labels as well.
“I think it’s fair to say that we really appreciate our local producers and we’re more supportive of them,” Streicker told the Star.
“But we want to do so in a way which is on side with all rules that are out there.”
Trade rules allow Canadian jurisdictions to treat large and small producers differently, the minister explained.
“What we’re really working at is making sure that we can evaluate the effectiveness of labels, and that’s what we want to try and get at. And we want to steer clear of those things that are more potentially going to lead to conflict.”
Bob Baxter, the president of Yukon Brewing, declined an interview for this story. He directed the Star to the alcohol industry associations for comment.
The Star was unable to connect with Winterlong Brewing Co. nor Yukon Shine Distillery before today’s deadline.
Stockwell called the revamped study a “half-win” for the researchers.
“The scientific value of the study is diluted,” he said, by dropping the cancer label and limiting the remaining labels to a smaller sample of alcohol containers.
“It’ll be harder for us to detect any effects,” on attitudes, opinions and behaviours related to drinking – the study’s objective.
However, Stockwell expressed gratitude for the Yukon government’s willingness to participate in the research, and the YLC’s persistence in negotiating with all parties to figure out a way for the study to continue.
The Northern Territories Alcohol Study is funded by Health Canada, to the tune of $700,000.
Every other provincial and territorial liquor association was approached with the invitation to participate in the study. The Yukon was the only jurisdiction that opted to host the labelling experiment.
“They’ve done their best; we’ve put them in a tight corner, and I think it’s started a bigger conversation than our little study would have triggered beforehand,” Stockwell said.
Dr. Brendan Hanley, the Yukon’s chief medical officer of health, also noted at Thursday’s press conference that the study’s controversy has managed to serve the public good.
“The discussion that has gone on locally, around the country and internationally over the last couple of months about, specifically, the cancer advisory label, has certainly raised public awareness of this risk. So in that way, we’ve already benefitted.”
The science that supports a causal link between alcohol and cancer dates back 30 years, Hanley said.
“Naturally, I’m disappointed to see the loss of the cancer health warning label; however, the more important accomplishment is that (the) Yukon government has now taken that decision to offer that the study continue.”
The risk of “expensive and protracted” litigation prompted the conclusion to retire the cancer label, Streicker told local media.
The alcohol industry associations brought up concerns with “legislative authority, label placement and trademark infringement, defamation” – terms that suggest the possibility of legal action, he said.
“During our discussions with researchers, the liquor industry and other stakeholders, this compromise was proposed by the researchers as a way for us to continue evaluating the effectiveness of labels in informing Yukoners about safe drinking.”
Going forward, researchers will conduct baseline surveys needed to restart the study after a significant pause and public attention.
It will conclude in June. Results will be available sometime in 2019.
Streicker said he has contacted federal Health Minister Ginette Petitpas Taylor to suggest the question of liquor labelling become a topic of national
Meanwhile, “let the study continue!” Hanley proclaimed.