The Australian federal government has taken the first, small, step towards putting cigarette-like health warnings on alcohol.

The Australian federal government is seeking advice on options to raise public awareness about alcohol harm after doctors’ groups launched a bid for cancer and other health warnings to be placed on all alcoholic beverages.

The Australian Medical Association (AMA), the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners (RACGP), and the Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education (FARE) are calling for alcohol producers to be forced to print labels on bottles, cans and casks warning of the risk of liver disease, cancer, heart disease, poor mental health, injury and alcohol poisoning.

Where this impacts New Zealand is that we share a food code with Australia. So any changes there would happen here (unless NZ chooses to abstain under specific clause in our food treaty, which I’m told is very rarely used).

NZ has one seat on the Ministerial Food Meeting (which also comprises a minister from each Australian state/territory and one from the Australian federal government), where matters are discussed and referred to Food Standards Australia NZ (FSANZ) to investigate.

The federal minister responsible for food and beverage labelling, Ged Kearney, said she had sought advice from her department on options for raising consumer awareness about the harms associated with alcohol.

It is expected the advice will canvass new warning labels.

“The Australian government recognises the importance of labelling to raise consumer awareness of, and seek to prevent, alcohol-related harms,” said Kearney, the assistant minister for health and aged care.

If Kearney decided this was worth pursuing, and she sounds proactive about it, the topic would advance to the Ministerial Food Meeting for discussion. They would then have to get FSANZ to review the evidence base for such labels and put forward a proposal to change the food code to require labels which would then be open for public consultation.

I contacted the Brewers Association of New Zealand for more information. Yes, they represent just New Zealand’s two biggest breweries (Lion and DB) but they are also at the heart of any lobbying around such issues.

Their view is that “cancer warning labels are not currently government policy here and to reduce a rather complex medical discussion which involves levels of cancer risk versus stating something is a cause, is something we do not support and believe cannot be accurately expressed by a label. The New Zealand government provides safe drinking guidelines and anyone with questions should speak to their healthcare professionals to better understand the impact of drinking on their individual health.”

The Independent Brewers Association in Australia is up in arms about this, posting to Instagram: “Of all the threats we’ve faced this has the potential to do the most damage to our industry … we need to act now.”

The call to mandate alcohol warning labels comes soon after Ireland enacted laws requiring alcoholic drinks to be labelled with health warnings and information, including calorie content and the risk of cancer and liver disease, from 2026.

It also follows the introduction of mandatory pregnancy warning labels in August this year, following more than two decades of campaigning and a three-year transition period.

In the interests of balance, I found this article presented a good argument for labelling. Indeed alcohol does fall short of other “foods” when it comes to nutritional information, but then there are plenty of other foods that also should come with health warnings. You know, all the fun stuff … bacon, corn chips, ice cream!