Mr. Speaker, before I begin my remarks, I want to mention that I have been talking about the bill with the member for Niagara Falls. We are not splitting time because there is not enough time, but we have consulted on bringing forward this thought process. Not discounting the serious nature of the bill, which is the reduction of impaired driving and the health risks associated with too much alcohol consumption, I ask the House to consider whether labelling is the most effective way to address this issue.
I am pleased to comment on the proposal requiring warning labels on alcoholic beverages. In general terms I am always supportive of measures that allow Canadians to make fully informed choices regarding their health. Product labelling certainly seems to fall under that philosophy.
Best intentions are obviously behind the bill, but I think we have to resist the easy choice of simply implementing what seems to be an innocuous measure to inform consumers of potential health and safety risks. On the surface the bill proposes what seems to be a straightforward item. Individuals may be tempted to support the legislation without looking at ramifications for the future and what this bill assumes about the average Canadian consumer.
Let us be realistic. Are there really millions of Canadians who are not aware that drinking alcohol impairs their ability to drive or operate machinery? I have yet to hear of a drunk driving defence claiming that a charged driver should be cleared because he was not aware that drinking alcohol is dangerous for driving. Are there millions of pregnant women who do not know that they should avoid alcohol for the sake of the developing baby?
To put it bluntly, I find the bill unnecessary and condescending. In many ways it is typical of a Liberal nanny state where the government believes that the public is not capable of personal responsibility without the benefit of government guidance. What is next? Should we put warning labels on buildings and other tall structures like hills and mountains telling people they would be harmed if they jump off them? How about labels on candies and chocolate bars: “Overconsumption combined with a lack of exercise may cause obesity”. How about bathtubs? “Breathing in contents of full tub may cause choking and/or drowning”.
The fact is, Canadians know the dangers of alcohol misuse. Warning labels will do nothing to enhance the awareness. Where is the science-based evidence that warning labels work? The U.S. has studied the effectiveness of warning labels due to an explicit evaluation requirement in the 1989 alcohol labelling act. The last follow-up data for the evaluation was collected in 1995.
The U.S. warning label reads as follows:
Government Warning: (1) According to the Surgeon General, women should not drink alcoholic beverages during pregnancy because of the risk of birth defects. (2) Consumption of alcoholic beverages impairs your ability to drive a car or operate machinery and may cause health problems.
The findings from U.S. studies show that the implementation of warning labels in the U.S. did not reduce the incidence of fetal alcohol syndrome. Perceptions of the risks associated with drinking mentioned on the labels, i.e. drinking while pregnant, drinking and driving et cetera, were high before the introduction of the labels. That did not change significantly after their introduction.
These findings suggest that warning labels by themselves are not particularly effective in increasing the perception of specific risks associated with drinking. Studies published four years after implementation of the warning labels did not show significant behavioural changes attributable to the warning labels, especially among heavy drinkers. Most disturbing was that the number of women in the U.S. who reported drinking while pregnant actually increased between 1989 and 1993.
These findings suggest that over the short term or medium term alcohol warning labels are not effective at changing problematic drinking behaviours.
There is also a lack of testing of existing labels in Canada. Warning labels have been in place in the Northwest Territories and the Yukon for several years now. Over that time, the incidence of alcohol abuse has not decreased and we are not aware of any studies that have been undertaken to prove the efficiency of the labels.
In the province of Ontario, as my colleague on the other side of the floor mentioned, there was Bill 43, more commonly known as Sandy's law, which was passed in 2004. The regulations were proclaimed just this month.
As of February 1, licensed restaurants and bars, LCBO stores, beer stores, beverage alcohol manufacturers' stores and licensed brew-on-premise facilities will be required to post a fetal alcohol syndrome warning sign in a prominent location where it can be seen by all patrons. In my opinion, that is the better way to do this. Is it not better to post the warning at the place where one is able to purchase alcohol? The effectiveness of these existing warning signs should be tested before proceeding with another type of warning.
Another problem is that warning labels are a blanket approach and do not directly target the most affected populations. According to a 2004 Canadian addiction survey released on November 23 by the Canadian Executive Council on Addictions, or CECA, Health Canada and the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse, over 85% of the population either drinks responsibly or abstains from alcohol, so once again, we are looking at targeting a very small minority of the population.
This legislation would direct limited resources to a vast majority of the drinking public that does not require the education and/or the assistance. Among those Canadians who consumed alcohol during the past year, it is estimated that 17%, or 13.6% of the entire population, are defined as high risk drinkers. I submit to the House that this is probably where our education dollars should go: toward these high risk groups.
When the problem is examined from a gender based perspective, the data is particularly revealing. The proportion of women identified as high risk drinkers is only 8.9%, whereas the figures for men are nearly triple that at 25.1%.
A more effective response to labelling would be to target these high risk groups, such as youth and mothers-to-be, with education and awareness programs. We certainly do not have any problem with that at all.
Warning labels will cost the beverage producers time and money and this is where I have some concerns for my constituents. The member for Niagara Falls and I represent a large number of wineries run by small business people who quite frankly depend very largely on being able to sell their product. They are not opposed to having labels in prominent positions, but certainly the issue of labelling right on the bottles is a concern. It is a concern not only from a cost point of view, but also from an image branding of the product. Suddenly having to revise all existing labels, if they have to replace them on all bottles, is going to be expensive and it is going to be a problem.
If someone can show me some concrete proof, which is not the kind of proof that former prime minister Jean Chrétien talked about in the context of a proof is a proof, that this measure would actually do something to prevent health and safety dangers, I would support it without hesitation. Labelling is an attractive measure for government. It does not require any effort or thought by the government, but it gives the appearance that the government has acted. That is a cop-out.
We can all vote in support of warning labels and pat ourselves on the back for doing something, but unfortunately the labels will not result in a reduction of traffic accidents due to alcohol or fewer babies born with fetal alcohol syndrome. We know that programs like RIDE are effective in decreasing impaired driving. If we want to have a further impact on decreasing alcohol abuse, we need to put further resources into enforcing underage drinking laws and impaired driving laws and into targeting education campaigns at high risk groups. Further financial support for medical and behavioural research would also be money well spent because it would allow us to focus our efforts where they would be most effective.
I suspect that some members will support the vote on the bill because they do not want to have their opposition misinterpreted as being against health and safety, but I will be voting against the bill for two reasons. It is ineffective and it misleads the public into believing the government is taking some sort of action. I hope that those who feel the same way will not hesitate to make their position known through their vote.