Summary of Findings: CSPI Alcohol Beverage Health Warning Statement Study

This summary highlights the major findings of a comprehensive, nationally representative telephone study among 801 Americans 21 years of age and older. The poll was conducted by Penn, Schoen & Berland Associates, Inc. for the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI).

This poll represents a detailed analysis of Americans’ awareness of and attitudes toward the government’s health warning statement that appears on all alcoholic beverage containers. The objective of the poll was both to measure the awareness among Americans about what information is contained in the health warning statement and to identify those factors that may hamper the effectiveness of the warning message.

Detailed tables that provide the responses to all questions in the survey are included at the end of this summary of findings. This summary focuses on "drinkers" -- Americans who say they consume alcoholic beverages.

The major conclusions of the study are as follows:

  1. The major barrier to the effectiveness of health warning statements is that they are not noticeable. Americans who consume alcoholic beverages find health warning statements difficult to notice because they are too small, they are not prominently located on containers, and they do not stand out on the bottle or can. Results suggest that drinkers think that the difficulty in noticing health warning statements negatively affects the perceived level of risk from alcohol. Drinkers would take health warning statements more seriously if they were easier to notice.

  2. Although a lesser percentage of Americans who consume alcohol find health warning statements "difficult to read," compared to "difficult to notice," the readability and legibility of the words contained in the health warning statement is still a serious barrier to its overall effectiveness.

  3. Americans who consume alcohol display a low level of specific knowledge about information contained in the alcohol warning statement.

  4. Americans who consume alcohol believe that specific changes to health warning statements that would make them more noticeable would also make them much more effective.


CONCLUSIONS

1. The major barrier to the effectiveness of health warning statements is that they are not noticeable. Americans who consume alcoholic beverages find health warning statements difficult to notice because they are too small, they are not prominently located on containers, and they do not stand out on the bottle or can. Results suggest that drinkers think that the difficulty in noticing health warning statements negatively affects the perceived level of risk from alcohol. Drinkers would take health warning statements more seriously if they were easier to notice.

Nearly 2 in 3 drinkers do not usually notice the warning statement on alcoholic-beverage containers, primarily because the warning statement is perceived as being difficult to notice. This perceived difficulty in noticing the health warning statement is due primarily to the small size of the health warning label and its location on the bottle or can. Large majorities of drinkers say that labels are frequently not located on containers in a conspicuous and prominent place and that labels often do not appear with a contrasting background that makes them stand out.

  • Nearly 2 in 3 Drinkers Do Not Notice Health Warning Statements. Nearly 2 in 3 drinkers (63%) say they do not usually notice the health warning statement on alcoholic-beverage containers. More than half (51%) say they rarely (21%) or never (30%) notice the health warning statement on alcoholic-beverage bottles and cans.

  • Nearly Half of Drinkers Find Health Warning Statements Difficult to Notice. Nearly half of drinkers (48%) say they sometimes find the health warning statement on alcohol beverage containers difficult to notice. The major reasons cited for this include the small size of the label (28%) and its location (20%), which is either "hidden" or "out of sight." One in five drinkers (19%) do not cite a specific reason and claim that health warning labels are simply not noticeable.

  • A Large Majority of Drinkers Say that Health Warning Statements are Not Prominently Located: More than 7 in 10 drinkers (73%) say that health warning statements are located on containers in a conspicuous and prominent place only "some of the time" or even less frequently. In fact, 1 in 4 drinkers (25%) say that health warning statements are "hardly ever" located in a conspicuous or prominent place and 15% say "not very often." Additionally, nearly 3 in 4 drinkers (73%) agree with the statement (42% strongly) that "health warning labels sometimes appear in the least prominent place on bottle and cans and this makes them difficult to notice and read."

  • A Large Majority of Drinkers Say that Health Warning Statements Do Not Stand Out. More than 3 in 4 drinkers (76%) say that health warning statements appear with a contrasting background that makes them stand out and easy to read only "some of the time" or even less frequently. In fact, 1 in 3 drinkers (33%) say that health warning statements "hardly ever" appear in a contrasting background that makes them stand out and 19% say "not very often."

Drinkers cite several changes to the health warning statement that they believe would make it more noticeable: use contrasting or brighter colors (21%); use bigger and bolder type (21%), and put the statement in a more noticeable place (12%).

One of the most important findings of the poll reveals that Americans who consume alcoholic beverages make a connection between the difficulty in noticing health warning statements and the perceived level of risk from alcohol. 2 in 3 drinkers (66%) agree – nearly half (46%) strongly – that the warning labels would be more visible and readable if the government was actually serious about people noticing them. This clearly indicates that drinkers believe that they and fellow drinkers would take health warning statements more seriously if they were easier to notice. Americans who consume alcoholic beverages intuitively sense that the size and prominence of warning labels is commensurate with the risks about which they purport to warn.

2. Although a lesser percentage of Americans who consume alcohol find health warning statements "difficult to read," compared to "difficult to notice," the readability and legibility of the words contained in the health warning statement is still a serious barrier to its overall effectiveness.

More than 1 in 5 Americans who consume alcohol (22%) say that they sometimes find health warning statements difficult to read. The fact that an additional 16% say they are "not sure" or "don’t know" whether they are difficult to read confirms that many drinkers do not notice the statements, and do not pay serious enough attention to them. Even though a majority of drinkers say they do not experience great difficulty reading the health warning statements, it is noteworthy that 21% say that bigger and bolder type is a change they would make to improve the statement’s readability.

  • Health Warning Statements are Difficult to Read Because the Words Are Too Small and Contrasting Colors are Not Used. Among drinkers who say that health warning statements are difficult to read, more than half (58%) cite "the words are too small" as the reason. Additionally, 2 in 3 drinkers (65%) agree (38% strongly) with the statement that "warning messages often appear on a background color that makes them hard to read."

  • Drinkers Recognize That Awareness of Information on Health Warning Statements Would be Higher if They Were Easier to Read. More than 7 in 10 drinkers (71%) agree (45% strongly) with the statement "more people would be aware of what the warning message stated if it was easier to read."

Drinkers Who Notice Health Warning Statements Say They are Difficult to Read

A significant finding of the poll is that the one-third of drinkers who say they usually notice health warning statements (34%) are just as likely as all drinkers to say that health warning statements are difficult to read and to identify the small print or type as the major reason. Therefore, even the minority of drinkers who notice the statement recognize that the readability of the message is poor. This conclusion is supported by the poll findings:

  • More than 3 in 4 drinkers who usually notice the statement (76%) agree that "more people would be aware of what the warning message stated if it was easier to read." This is higher than among all drinkers (71%).

  • One in four drinkers who usually notice the statement (25%) say they sometimes find the health warning statement difficult to read, compared to 22% of all drinkers. Nearly as many drinkers who notice the health warning statement (57%) identify small print or type as the problem compared to all drinkers (59%).

  • More than 2 in 3 drinkers who usually notice the statement (67%) agree that "warning messages often appear on a background color that makes them hard to read." This is actually slightly higher than among all drinkers (65%).

3. Americans who consume alcohol display a low level of specific knowledge about information contained in the alcohol warning statement.

Given that Americans who consume alcohol find the health warning statement difficult to notice and read, it is not surprising that top-of-mind recall ("tell me everything you can recall about what the health warning statement says") of information contained in the statement is low. In fact, more than 4 in 10 drinkers (42%) say they are either not at all familiar (26%) or not very familiar (16%) with the information contained in the health warning statement on alcoholic-beverage containers and an additional 37% said they were only somewhat familiar.

  • Only a Slight Majority of Drinkers Recall That the Health Warning Statement Says That Pregnant Women Should Not Drink. Nearly half of both men (44%) and women drinkers (45%) cannot recall, on a top-of-mind basis, that the health warning statement says that women should not drink during pregnancy.

  • Top-of-Mind Recall of Other Statements is Very Low. One in five drinkers (21%) cannot recall anything – not even a single word -- about what the health warning statement says, and top-of-mind awareness of other pertinent information and facts is less than 25%: consumption of alcohol impairs your ability to drive a car (24%); consumption of alcohol may cause health problems (17%); Surgeon General mentioned as an authoritative source (13%); consumption of alcohol impairs your ability to operate machinery (12%); statement says government warning (4%).

  • Significant Percentage of Drinkers Have Low Aided Awareness About Information Contained in the Health Warning Statement. When prompted, a significant percentage of drinkers (40%) were unable to identify pregnant women as the person or persons specifically warned not to drink alcoholic beverages at all and 42% could not identify the Surgeon General as the authoritative source on the risks of alcohol consumption. Of greater concern, 3 in 4 drinkers (74%) could not identify "Government Warning" as the first two words of the health warning statement.

4. Americans who consume alcoholic beverages believe that specific changes to health warning statements that would make them more noticeable would also make them much more effective.

Respondents to the poll were read a series of possible changes to health warning statements and asked whether each, in their view, would make warning messages more noticeable and readable. The results below show that Americans who consume alcohol believe that a number of changes – principally those that make the health warning statement more noticeable – would be effective.

Methods to make health warning statements more noticeable and readable. Among drinkers.

FIRST NUMBER: % VERY EFFECTIVE
SECOND NUMBER: % VERY + SOMEWHAT EFFECTIVE

Very Effective

Total Effective

Having warning labels printed in red or black type on a white background and surrounded by a lined border.

53

88

Placing the warning label in a prominent place on the front of all alcoholic beverage bottles and cans.

53

84

Placing the warning message in the same relative position on all bottles and cans.

48

78

Requiring that "government warning," the first two words of the health warning statement, appear in capital letters and bold face type larger than the remaining text of the label.

38

75

Requiring that the warning labels contain a red pictorial device
or icon, such as a triangle with an exclamation mark inside, that would attract the consumer’s attention.

36

80

Having the warning label printed horizontally or across as
opposed to vertically or up and down.

26

63

Drinkers Who Notice the Health Warning Statement Agree Changes Are Needed

The one-third of drinkers who say they usually notice the health warning statement are just as likely as all drinkers to believe that changes to the health warning statement that make it more noticeable and readable would be effective. This is a recognition that just because they notice the health warning statement does not mean that they believe it is effective in its present form.

  • More than half of the drinkers who usually notice the statement (55%) say that having warning labels printed in red or black type on a white background and surrounded by a lined border would be an effective way to make the statement more noticeable and readable. Similarly, one-half of drinkers who usually notice the statement say that placing the warning label in a prominent place on the front of all alcohol beverage bottles and cans would be effective, compared to 53% of all drinkers.

For more information on alcohol warning labels, please click here.

August 2001