Does slapping a warning label on every single item we buy in the shops really make us more aware of potential risks, or are we running into an overprotection of the individual?

In an effort to protect public health, the World Health Organization (WHO) is calling for more comprehensive warning labels on things like alcohol. Numerous working documents praise the usefulness of warning labels in a society in which the risks of alcohol aren’t understood by everyone. Needless to say that EU member states are already going at it when it comes to accessibility : alcohol is hit with excise taxes, special alcohol taxes, VAT, minimum alcohol pricing, sales restrictions limited in time and place, bans on consumption in public places. In Nordic countries, the sale of alcohol is completely in government hands, and expensive to a degree that it impacts tourism.

Alcohol isn’t the only product targeted by public health activists : food products containing sugar and fat should also be hit by marketing restrictions and with health labelling, if all was going according to regulators and those pretending to know better. In France, you cannot even run an ad for crisps without the obligation to point out that salty food can be bad for you, read in the same voice and speed of a pharma-ad disclaimer. « Mind the gap », « smoking kills », « avoid sugary food and exercise » : you can’t help but wonder at what point we’ll become desensitised towards health warnings.

When it comes to labelling, public health advocates are quick to point to a number of studies proving the effectiveness of a particular health warning, be that text of picture. However, this assumes that the warning is already being looked at, which is not self-evident. Just like in the case of medicine : for a drug to be effective, it seems obvious that the patient will have to take it in the first place. Take the example of this 2018 study, which sets the amount of respondents which were actually aware of the warning labels for alcohol.

“Eye-tracking identified that 60% of participants looked at the current in market alcohol warning label […]. The current study casts doubt on dominant practices (largely self-report), which have been used to evaluate alcohol warning labels. Awareness cannot be used to assess warning label effectiveness in isolation in cases where attention does not occur 100% of the time.”

These are people who purchased the product and were actually not aware of what the warning label said. The question is of course : how can that be ? How is it possible that people ignore the warning label ?

The WHO working document “Alcohol labelling A discussion document on policy options” points towards the necessity of good design when it comes to warning labels. It says :

“There are four message components that may be considered when developing an effective health label, each serving a different purpose: (i) signal word to attract attention; (ii) identification of the problem; (iii) explanation of the consequences if exposed to the problem; and (iv) instructions for avoiding the problem. The visual impact of the label can be enhanced by using large, bold print; high contrast; colour; borders; and pictorial symbols.”

But bad design cannot be the only explanation for decreased awareness. Take the example of safety instructions on aeroplanes. Frequent flyers will know : after up to 2 flights a week, they become completely unnoticeable. An inflation of warning labels can desensitise those supposed to be aware of them, because of a lack of nuance. The messages « coffee can be bad for your health » and « smoking cigarettes can be bad for your health » don’t set a hierarchy of health hazards. In fact, sat next to each other both messages could imply that both are equally damaging. We should try not to make health warnings trivial : if they become less meaningful to consumers, we run the risk that important health warnings are actually ignored.

Originally published here 



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