Impact of health warning labels communicating the risk of cancer on alcohol selection: an online experimental study

Natasha Clarke, Emily Pechey, Eleni Mantzari, Anna K.M. Blackwell, Katie De-loyde, Richard W. Morris, Marcus R. Munafò, Theresa M. Marteau, Gareth J. Hollands

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

31 Citations (SciVal)


Aims: Evidence from tobacco research suggests that health warning labels (HWLs) depicting the adverse consequences of consumption change smoking behaviours, with image-and-text (also known as ‘pictorial’ or ‘graphic’) HWLs most effective. There is an absence of evidence concerning the potential impact of HWLs placed on alcohol products on selection of those products. This study aimed to obtain a preliminary assessment of the possible impact of (i) image-and-text, (ii) text-only, and (iii) image-only HWLs on selection of alcoholic versus non-alcoholic drinks. Design: A between-subjects randomised experiment with a 2 (image: present versus absent) × 2 (text: present versus absent) factorial design. Setting: The study was conducted on the online survey platform Qualtrics. Participants: Participants (n = 6024) were adults over the age of 18 who consumed beer or wine regularly (i.e. at least once a week), recruited through a market research agency. Interventions: Participants were randomised to one of four groups varying in the HWL displayed on the packaging of alcoholic drinks: (i) image-and-text HWL; (ii) text-only HWL; (iii) image-only HWL; and (iv) no HWL. HWLs depicted bowel cancer, breast cancer and liver cancer, which were each displayed twice across six alcoholic drinks. Each group viewed six alcoholic and six non-alcoholic drinks and selected one drink that they would like to consume. Measurements: The primary outcome was the proportion of participants selecting an alcoholic versus a non-alcoholic drink. Findings: Alcoholic drink selection was lower for all HWL types compared with no HWL (image-and-text: 56%; image-only: 49%; text-only: 61%; no HWL: 77%), with selection lowest for HWLs that included an image. Image-and-text HWLs reduced the odds of selecting an alcoholic drink compared with text-only HWLs (OR = 0.80, 95% CI = 0.69, 0.92), but increased the odds of selecting an alcoholic drink compared with image-only HWLs (OR = 1.34, 95% CI = 1.16, 1.55). Conclusions: Health warning labels communicating the increased risk of cancers associated with alcohol consumption reduced selection of alcoholic versus non-alcoholic drinks in a hypothetical choice task in an online setting; labels displaying images had the largest effect. Their impact in laboratory and real-world field settings using physical products awaits investigation.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)41-52
Number of pages12
Issue number1
Early online date4 Jan 2021
Publication statusPublished - 31 Jan 2021


  • alcohol
  • cancer
  • choice architecture
  • graphic warnings
  • health warning label
  • pictorial health warning label

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Medicine (miscellaneous)
  • Psychiatry and Mental health


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