The Yukon is the first Canadian jurisdiction to introduce liquor labels warning of the association between alcohol use and cancer, and encouraging moderate drinking.
The labels are rolling out on bottles this month as part of the federally funded Northern Territories Alcohol Study, in which the Yukon is participating.
The labels will only be affixed to liquor products sold out of the Whitehorse liquor store for a few months until this study phase wraps up in the spring.
However, the minister responsible for the Yukon Liquor Corp. said the government will consider making the labelling regime a permanent practice if it proves effective.
“We always want to strike a balance between being the organization that provides alcohol and an opportunity for local businesses, while at the same time recognizing that there are some social issues that are created with alcohol and addictions,” John Streicker told the Star Thursday.
“You don’t want to be blind to that; you need to think about it up front and be working towards promoting that social responsibility. So of course, we would
consider this,” he said.
But making the new labels a permanent fixture on liquor bottles in the Yukon would depend on a variety of factors.
One of these, Streicker explained, is if and/or how the labels affect Yukoners’ relationship with alcohol.
“At the very least, we know that it informs people. It provides information that they might not have otherwise had.
“And so I think that’s a positive in its own right,” he said.
“Does it change behaviours? Well, that’s what we’re trying to assess here.”
According to Brendan Hanley, the Yukon’s chief medical officer of health, the territory has a drinking problem.
Hanley told the Star Thursday there are a number of indicators that point to heavier-than-average alcohol consumption in the Yukon, compared to other
jurisdictions in Canada.
Hanley said he believes that Yukoners are familiar with the fact that alcohol can be harmful. However, he’s not sure there’s as much knowledge about the
specific harms associated with consumption.
Science has known for a long time that there’s a strong link between drinking and gastrointestinal tract cancers like esophageal and liver cancer.
But evidence is mounting to support the relationship between colorectal cancer and alcohol use, breast cancer and “even moderate levels of alcohol
consumption,” Hanley said.
And of these potential harms, consumers typically want to be informed, according to the chief medical officer of health.
Background research conducted before the Northern Territories Alcohol Study indicated that there is an appetite for informative labelling.
In fact, the liquor corporation has been warning of the risks associated with drinking during pregnancy by way of liquor labels since 1991.
But all potential harms considered, Hanley also qualified that there has to be a balance between warning consumers of the harm drinking, especially heavy
drinking, can cause, and respecting the centrality of alcohol in our lives.
“It’s in fact a lot more straightforward with tobacco because there really is no safe level of tobacco consumption,” Hanley explained.
Most Canadians are familiar with the lurid, federally-mandated tobacco packing warning consumers of lung cancer, strokes, and other potential ill-effects of
“But we know that even if the health benefits are increasingly being questioned,” Hanley said – the belief that a daily glass of wine, for example, is good for one’s heart health – “there’s certainly social benefits.
“And we know that at low levels of consumption, there are probably no physical harms associated with alcohol.”
Marketing also poses a challenge to making the new labels a long-term fixture on Yukon liquor bottles, Streicker pointed out.
“There’s always going to be some concerns out there by industry. I mean, industry probably is not a big proponent of this, but I think they recognize that we have a job to ensure moderation and safe drinking guidelines,” he said.
The minister also noted that there’s only so much room on a bottle to advertise information.
Similarly, consumers tend to gloss over labels they’re constantly exposed to. One of the methods under consideration, Streicker said, is rotating labels.
At the very least, however, people are being informed. And not just in the Yukon, he pointed out.
The labelling study has attracted national media attention.
Health Canada is funding the study, and alcohol labelling is primarily Ottawa’s jurisdiction. Provinces and territories may enact additional labelling
“So I’m glad that we’re sort of taking a lead here, and then we’ll see where it goes,” Streicker said.
“Ultimately,” Hanley noted, “this is something we’d like to see federal leadership in.”
A survey will be conducted in the spring to evaluate the labels’ effects on consumers in the Yukon.