Dr Fiona Sim, RSPH Chair

Dr Fiona Sim, Chair of RSPH, introduces our latest campaign proposing the introduction of calorie labelling for alcohol.

The latest initiative from our policy team is about tackling some of the most challenging public health issues by looking at the links between them. We have chosen to consider how discouraging harmful drinking might be complemented by a focus on healthy weight.

So, let’s look at the issues: two of our biggest population health problems are harmful drinking, which can cause endless misery, ill health, injuries and violence, and an estimated 8748 deaths in the UK in 2011; and obesity, which we know causes endless misery, ill health and contributes to around 400,000 deaths in the UK every year. People who drink may or may not be overweight.

People who are overweight may or may not be drinkers. But alcoholic beverages, with or without the mixers that we drink with them, are a source of calories. So, for people who drink them, they inevitably contribute to excess calorie intake unless accompanied by the imbiber missing meals or reducing their calorie intake in some other way. We know the latter is uncommon: drinkers tend to eat while drinking or soon after.

Arguably, drinkers could alternatively burn off the excess calories through more physical activity, but we know that in fact the opposite is true: people who drink are more likely to cancel a physically demanding commitment the following day. 

Unfortunately, this scenario leads us to the stereotype of the typical couch potato: sitting drinking cheap beer, wine or spirits purchased at the supermarket and then calling for a classically unhealthy take-away later the same evening. Or something similar, but adding a walk to the pub to drink there, which at least adds physical activity to the scene, as the consumer walks to the pub and home again. In the worst case scenario a car is involved and the drinker becomes a drink-driver.

At RSPH, we have done some preliminary research and confirmed that most people (80% of a sample of 500) have no idea of the calorie content of their favourite tipple. What we need to know now is whether or not providing this information will influence their alcohol consumption.

While we are waiting for research to demonstrate definitively whether or not knowledge of calorie content can be used to influence alcohol consumption, we at RSPH are calling for printed nutritional information to be mandatory on all alcoholic drinks – for the avoidance of doubt, it is not currently required in the UK and most other countries.

So last week we did a little bit of research at a pub in Aldgate where, using drinks’ lists with and without calorie values printed on them, it was fascinating to know firstly if they noticed and secondly if it had made any difference. Where menus included calorie counts the drinkers consumed a third less calories on average than where that information was not shown to the drinkers.

This small project was by no means conducted under controlled research conditions and so we won’t leap to any pseudoscientific conclusions, but what it did show for sure was that people are interested in knowing about the energy value of their drinks and that for some, at least, that information may influence the choice and amount of alcohol that they consume.

So, we hope that some serious academic research will be undertaken to demonstrate the impact of calorie labelling on alcoholic drinks and that the industry will consider this step, whether or not government wants to impose it.