Second reading of Bill S-254, An Act to amend the Food and Drugs Act (warning label on alcoholic beverages)

By: The Hon. Jane Cordy

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Hon. Jane Cordy: Honourable senators, I rise today at second reading in support of Bill S-254, An Act to amend the Food and Drugs Act (warning label on alcoholic beverages). It would make mandatory health warning labels on alcoholic beverages which are sold in Canada.

I’m speaking to you today from the unceded land of the Algonquin Anishinabeg peoples.

I want to first begin by thanking Senator Brazeau for introducing this very important bill to this chamber.


Honourable senators, it has been scientifically proven that a link exists between consuming alcoholic beverages and certain types of cancers. As Senator Brazeau has stated in his speech, these include cancer of the mouth and throat, vocal cords, esophagus, breast, liver and colon.

As Senator Brazeau also highlighted, only one in four Canadians are even aware that there is a connection between consuming alcoholic beverages and the risk of cancer. The majority of Canadians are also unaware that the World Health Organization classifies alcohol as aGroup 1 carcinogen.

In letters of support for this bill from organizations such as the Cobequid Community Health Board, the Yarmouth Community Health Board, the Lunenburg County Community Health Board and the Digby and Area Community Health Board, all from my province of Nova Scotia, they make it clear that the measures in this bill are in line with current health recommendations grounded in scientific, evidence-based findings:

Bill S-254 aligns with the recent call for warning labels that formed part of the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction’s proposed new Canadian Guidance on Alcohol and Health that Health Canada: “require, through regulation, the mandatory labelling of all alcoholic beverages to list the number of standard drinks in a container, the Guidance on Alcohol and Health, health warnings and nutrition information.” This recommendation comes from leading scientific experts in the field and is supported by an Evidence-based Recommendations for Labelling Alcohol Products in Canada written by Canadian Alcohol Policy Evaluation (CAPE) Project researchers, who have been leaders in the alcohol policy field for over 10 years.

The Eastern Shore Community Health Board members in Nova Scotia echo these concerns in their support for this legislation stating that they feel:

. . . it is imperative for people to know and understand the risks they are taking when choosing to consume alcohol. Not only is alcohol a health risk for cancer but we see the outcomes of alcohol addiction in our communities in the form of family violence, mental health issues and other chronic diseases. Warning labels are just the start of a series of public policies required to reduce the amount of alcohol consumed in our communities and create healthier environments for families.

Honourable senators, the goal of this bill is not to take away Canadians’ right to purchase these products, or restrict access to these products, as I feel opponents of this bill may claim. The intent is to provide the consumer with clear and accurate and, quite frankly, important information to make an informed choice when deciding to consume these types of products.

When we hear that only one in four Canadians even know that there is a risk of cancer from consuming alcoholic beverages over time, I think the proof is there that these types of labels are necessary and well overdue.

Honourable senators, some may ask if warning labels are even effective; will they make enough of a difference, or will they just be an unnecessary disruption to Canada’s alcoholic beverage industry?

We can look at tobacco as an example. I will quote from a relevant study. In 2006, International Tobacco Control conducted a four-country survey to assess the effectiveness of cigarette warning labels in informing smokers about the risks of smoking:

The aim of the current study was to use nationally representative samples of adult smokers from the United States (USA), the United Kingdom (UK), Canada (CAN), and Australia . . . to examine variations in smokers’ knowledge about tobacco risks and the impact of package warnings.

At the time:

Smokers in the four countries exhibited significant gaps in their knowledge of the risks of smoking. Smokers who noticed the warnings were significantly more likely to endorse health risks, including lung cancer and heart disease. In each instance where labelling policies differed between countries, smokers living in countries with government mandated warnings reported greater health knowledge.

For example, in Canada, where package warnings include information about a specific health risk, “smokers were 2.68 . . . times more likely to agree” that smoking causes that health risk compared to smokers from the other three countries.

The survey concluded that health warnings that are “graphic, larger and more comprehensive in content are more effective in communicating the health risks of smoking.”

We see that health warning labels are effective in educating the consumer of the risks. But the question now is, does that knowledge lead to change in behaviour, in this case, a decrease in consumption?

If we look at Canada in 2000, the smoking rate was roughly 28% of Canadians above the age of 15 who smoked on a regular basis. The latest statistic on the prevalence of smoking in Canada put that number under 12% today.

Of course, the decline in smoking prevalence in Canada cannot be attributed solely to mandated graphic health warning labels on tobacco packages. There were, as you know, many forms of advertising that spoke of the harms of smoking. Health warning labels are just one of the many tools to help curb consumer behaviour. It has been shown that, when used together with other policies and measures, it is a very effective strategy.

In the case of alcohol consumption, the evidence shows that the more alcohol consumed, the greater risk of certain cancers. Canadians need to be aware of that; however, we know that it is not in the financial interest of alcohol beverage producers to voluntarily add warning labels to their products.

The aim of warning labels is to reduce consumption, which would decrease demand for their products; this is why, as Senator Brazeau has said in his speech, “it becomes the basic responsibility of Parliament to step in.”

Honourable senators, again, I wish to thank Senator Brazeau for introducing this bill here in the Senate. I fully support the intent of this legislation. It has been shown that health warning labels on other products have had a positive impact on consumer behaviours. Why should alcoholic beverages be exempt from this same scrutiny? It is time they are brought in line with other products that can be harmful.

Honourable senators, I am hopeful that we can send Bill S-254 to committee in a timely manner for further study and for consideration. Thank you.


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