Cancer warning labels on alcohol would not reinvent wheel, Senator says

A Canadian Senator has introduced legislation that, if passed, would require warning labels on alcohol similar to those on cigarettes, cautioning consumers about a link with cancer.

Sen. Patrick Brazeau sponsored Bill S-254 earlier this month. The bill, called “An Act to amend the Food and Drugs Act (warning label on alcoholic beverages)” would, if passed, require all products containing 1.1 per cent alcohol by volume or more be labelled with a message that describes the causal link between alcohol consumption and the development of fatal cancers.

The labels would also need to lay out what is considered a “standard drink”, how many standard drinks are in each product and the number of standard drinks that should not be exceeded in order to avoid significant health risks.

Speaking on Newstalk 580 CFRA’s “CFRA Live with Andrew Pinsent” on Sunday, Sen. Brazeau said this type of labelling isn’t new.

“This is not reinventing the wheel. We went through this process with tobacco companies,” he said. “It’s just so that consumers know that what they’re consuming is causing cancer because the science and the research, certainly in the last decade or so, suggest that.”

A 2016 study in New Zealand, published in the journal Addiction, found that there is strong evidence of that alcohol consumption causes cancers of the liver, colon, and rectum, three types of throat related cancers (larynx, orolarynx and esophagus), and female breast cancer. The study estimates that nearly six per cent of all cancers worldwide can be attributed to alcohol.

A 2022 study in Korea also found an increased risk for all cancers among people who drank more alcohol.

Brazeau, a non-affiliated senator from Quebec, said he wanted to take on this bill because of his own challenges with both alcohol and cancer.

“I’ve had problems with alcohol use in the past, but I’ve been clean and sober for over two-and-a-half years now,” he said, adding he lost his mother to cancer in 2004.

The bill only addresses alcohol’s link to cancer, but Brazeau says there are many other societal issues attributed to alcohol and substance abuse disorder.

“I haven’t even begun to start talking about the impacts of alcohol on society and the justice system and men’s mental health. This is simply a fight against cancer,” he said. “The introduction of this bill is to honour my mom who died of cancer and many other Canadians who were affected by cancer. At the end of the day, I don’t think there’s a family in Canada who hasn’t been affected by cancer.”

Brazeau says he expects the alcohol industry will not accept the labels without a fight.

“There’s going to be serious pushback by the alcohol industry into not having these labels but, at the end of the day, I firmly believe that all Canadians have the right to know exactly what is in their products that they’re consuming, similar to those who have a pack of cigarettes and decide to smoke,” he said.

In 2017 the Yukon Liquor Corporation began affixing labels to alcoholic products sold in the territory that warned alcohol can cause breast and colon cancer, but the move was quickly halted after industry complaints. The labelling was meant to be part of an eight-month study to assess the effectiveness of warning labels.

The new alcohol warning labels are shown in this handout photo (Kate Vallance/ handout)

Brazeau says he believes a warning label would give consumers more of a chance to make informed choices.

“I’m not telling people to quit drinking and I’m not suggesting to tell anybody what to do. All I’m suggesting is I’ve had lived experience and it hasn’t been good with alcohol and I know that there’s a lot of people struggling with alcohol and I think we have to start being honest in 2022 about the negative impacts of alcohol.”

A list of supports for people struggling with substance use disorders can be found on Health Canada’s website.

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