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Standard Alcohol Labels


I Introduction
II Effectiveness of standard alcohol labels
III Current standard alcohol labelling policies internationally
IV Current Canadian research on standard alcohol labels
V Conclusion
VII References
VIII Resources

--Submitted by Jason LeMar, Health Promotion Consultant – Alcohol Policy, Health Promotion Capacity Building, Public Health Ontario

I Introduction

With the exception of alcoholic beverages, conveying health-related information through the use of standard product labels on food and beverages is now widespread in Canada. The advantages of product labelling include: offering a feasible method to reach drinkers, delivery of information at points of sale and consumption, and providing the highest exposure to the heaviest users. [1] Alcohol labelling initiatives are still underdeveloped, despite acceptance as a universal prevention measure for addressing alcohol-related risk in over 20 countries around the world. [2]

There are three main types of product information that are included in standard alcohol labelling: health warnings, nutritional information (e.g., ingredients, allergens and calories) and number of standard drinks (servings) in a container. Some labels combine these types of product information. For example, guidelines for low-risk drinking can be paired with information on the number of standard drinks per container, to help consumers better monitor and control their drinking. [3]

II Effectiveness of standard alcohol labels
Health warning labels
Generally, there is limited high-quality evidence evaluating the effectiveness of various types of alcohol labels. Evaluations of the United States text-based alcohol health warning labels that were mandated by federal law in 1989 show that these labels can increase awareness and convey messages about risks to drinkers, but on their own the labels have not led to reductions in risky drinking. [4,5,6] Nonetheless, alcohol health warning labels can play a role in shifting social norms around alcohol consumption by stimulating conversations about drinking. [1,4] In order to have the greatest impact on knowledge, beliefs and behaviour, recent reviews recommend that alcohol health warning labels should be highly visible, easy to understand, clearly state the consequences of alcohol use, and be coordinated with a range of other proven strategies. [4,6,7]
Nutrition information labels
Nutrition information labels [8] are part of efforts to improve dietary choices of consumers by revealing nutrition and other health related information. Health Canada requires all pre-packaged food for sale in Canada to have standardized nutrition labels. [9] Although there is a lack of research on the effectiveness of nutrition labels on alcoholic beverage containers, general research on nutrition labels can be applicable to alcohol. There is a strong correlation between nutrition label use and healthier diet choices; however, causality is difficult to determine since these factors likely influence each other. [10]  

Standard drink labels
Standard drink labels (SDL) clearly indicate the number of standard servings contained in alcoholic beverages based on a pre-determined amount of pure alcohol. A standard unit or drink of alcohol in Canada is 13.45g or 17.05mL of pure alcohol which is roughly equivalent to 12oz of 5% beer, 5oz of 12% wine and 1.5oz of 40% spirits. Currently only Australia and New Zealand require SDLs on alcohol containers.

Experimental research conducted in Australia in the early 1990s found that SDLs significantly improved the ability of drinkers to correctly identify the number of standard drinks in a given container, compared to labels showing alcohol by volume (ABV). This is probably due to the fact that consumers have to use container size and percentage of alcohol to calculate the number of standard drinks with ABV labels. [11,12] Based on a recent study, 82.7% of Canadian drinkers said they would support the introduction of SDLs in Canada. [3]

III Current standard alcohol labelling policies internationally

Focus On: Standard Alcohol Labels presents a table of current standard alcohol labelling policies in various countries. A number of inferences can be made from this table (see Table 1 in Focus On: Standard Alcohol Labels at
many countries require some form of alcohol labelling

  • alcohol by volume (ABV) labels are the most prevalent form of mandated labels
  • some form of health warning and nutritional information on labels are required by a majority of countries
  • none of the countries listed in Table 1 require calories to be listed on alcohol containers
  • Australia and New Zealand are the only countries that currently require SDLs on alcoholic beverages.

IV Current Canadian research on standard alcohol labels

A range of countries has undertaken initiatives aimed to enhance the use of standard alcohol labels to encourage low-risk drinking, and thus reduce the harm and costs of alcohol. Canadian research on alcohol labelling is taking place under the National Alcohol Strategy (NAS). The National Alcohol Strategy Advisory Committee recently released a report providing an overview of standard drink labelling specific to the Canadian context. The report recommends adding SDLs to containers, providing consumer education on low-risk drinking guidelines and other topics, and the creation of a web resource to enhance the ability of consumers to make healthier drinking choices. [8]

In collaboration with researchers and public health experts from across Canada, Public Health Ontario (PHO) is currently investigating the effectiveness of a combined standard drink and low-risk alcohol drinking guidelines label on drinkers’ ability to: recognize the amount of alcohol in a Canadian standard drink; identify the number of standard drinks in standard beer, wine, and spirit products; and correctly determine the number of drinks one would have to consume to reach the national low-risk alcohol drinking guidelines. [13] Although findings from this study have not yet been published, preliminary analyses suggest that placing standard drink information and drinking guidelines on alcoholic beverage containers improves drinkers’ ability to correctly identify the amount of alcohol in a Canadian standard drink, and better assists them in identifying the number of standard drinks in beverage containers compared with standard ABV labels. Pending results also suggest the majority of consumers support the inclusion of more health/nutrition information on alcohol containers. In addition, a majority of participants also stated that placing information on drinking guidelines and standard drinks on labels would assist them in making healthier drinking choices. [13]

V Conclusion

The use of standard alcohol labels has been growing internationally with various labelling initiatives underway in Canada. Although evidence on the effectiveness of standard alcohol labels for reducing alcohol-related harm is preliminary, there is support for more health-related information on alcoholic beverage containers from most drinkers. As next steps, evaluations should be conducted to determine the most effective labels for reducing alcohol-related harm across the population and among population subgroups.

This article is a summary of Focus On: Standard Alcohol Labels. For the full document please visit: The citation for the Focus On article is: Ontario Agency for Health Protection and Promotion (Public Health Ontario), LeMar J, Berenbaum E; Thomas G (Okanagon Research Consulting). Focus on: Standard Alcohol Labels. Toronto, ON: Queen’s Printer for Ontario; 2015.

VI References

  1. Greenfield TK, Kaskutus LA. Five years’ exposure to alcohol warning labels and their impact: evidence from diffusion analysis. Appl Behav Sci Rev. 1998;6(1):39-68.
  2. Martin-Moreno J, Harris M, Breda J, Moller L, Alfonso-Sanchez J, Gorgojo, L. Enhanced labelling on alcoholic drinks: reviewing the evidence to guide policy. Eur J Pub Health. 2013;23(6):1082-7. Available from:
  3. Osiowy M, Stockwell T, Zhao J, Thompson K, Moore S. How much did you actually drink last night? An evaluation of standard drink labels as an aid to monitoring personal consumption. Addict Res Theory. 2015;23(2):163-9.
  4. Thomas G, Gonneau G, Poole N, Cook J. The effectiveness of alcohol warning labels in the prevention of fetal alcohol spectrum disorder: a brief review. Int J Alcohol Drug Res. 2014;3(1):91-103. Available from:
  5. Kaskutas L. Interpretations of risk: the use of scientific information in the development of alcohol warning label policy. Int J Addict. 1995;30(12):1519-48.
  6. Wilkinson C, Room R. Warnings on alcohol containers and advertisements: international experience and evidence on effects. Drug Alcohol Revi. 2009;28(4):426-35.
  7. Scholes-Balog K, Heerde J, Hemphill S. Alcohol warning labels: unlikely to affect alcohol-related beliefs and behaviours in adolescents. Aust N Z J Public Health. 2012;36(6):524-9.
  8. National Alcohol Strategy Advisory Committee. What is a drink? Communicating drink information to the consumer. Ottawa, ON: Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse; 2015.
  9. Health Canada. Food and nutrition: regulations and compliance [Internet]. Ottawa, ON: Government of Canada; 2013 [cited 2015 Apr 27]. Available from:
  10. Campos S, Doxey J, Hammond D. Nutrition labels on pre-packaged foods: a systematic review. Public Health Nutr. 2011;14(8):1496-506.
  11. Stockwell T, Blaze-Temple D, Walker C. The effect of ‘standard drink’ labelling on the ability of drinkers to pour a ‘standard drink’. Aust J Public Health. 1991;15(1):56-63.
  12. Stockwell T, Blaze-Temple D, Walker C. A test of the proposal to label containers of alcohol drinks with alcohol content in standard drinks. Health Promot Int. 1991; 6(3):207-15.
  13. Hobin E. Encouraging a culture of moderation: pilot investigation of the efficacy of posting standard drink information and Canada’s National Low-Risk Alcohol Drinking Guidelines on alcohol containers among adults in Ontario. Presented at: Public Health Ontario Ground Rounds. 2014 Dec 2; Toronto, ON.

VIII Resources

Focus On: Standard Alcohol Labels. For the full document please visit: For more information on alcohol labelling you can access two webinar presentations hosted by Public Health Ontario.