Could plain-packaged alcohol save us from ourselves?

(Photo taken in Ixelles at Hortense & Humus)

Today I came across an article which discussed the potential introduction of plain packaging for alcoholic beverages paired with graphic warnings, like those we see on cigarette packaging. Do alcohol and cigarettes fall into the same category as direct threats to our health? Certain public bodies in the UK would appear to believe so and have made some controversial suggestions regarding packaging for alcoholic drinks.

In college I wrote my thesis on the parallels between the sugar industry of today and the tobacco industry of the mid-20th Century. I must mention that I wrote my thesis in 2013, before the likes of the Daily Mail and mainstream media caught on to the concept of sugar being highly dangerous and addictive. I read Marion Nestle and Felicity Lawrence, among other pioneering critics of the food industry, to arrive at this comparison. It frustrates me to see the dangers of sugar overlooked in favour of regulating alcohol packaging. In fact, I find it frustrating to see people so concerned about the links made between certain cancers and the consumption of alcohol, yet slow to acknowledge the links between cancer and the consumption of processed meat, for example. Who gets to pick and choose, on behalf of the public, which cancer threats ought to be regulated?

It’s definitely easy to draw parallels between alcohol and tobacco as superfluous substances detrimental to human health. While we need food to live (unlike tobacco or alcohol), we do not need red meat nor refined sugar to live, yet the consumption of both substances has been linked to an increased risk of cancer.

Much research shows that it is sugar’s relationship to higher insulin levels and related growth factors that may influence cancer cell growth the most, and increase risk of other chronic diseases.

With regards to meat, according to the World Health Organisation ‘Processed meat was classified as Group 1, carcinogenic to humans’ which happens to be the same category as tobacco. Processed meat poses a real threat, but is there a public body looking to regulate its packaging and save the public from the dangers of red meat? I somehow doubt it.

Regarding the dangers of alcohol, it too has been linked to types of cancer. Although I’m someone who is generally quite health-conscious, I try to maintain some perspective when faced with a list as long as my arm of things that may be linked to cancers. Scientists seem to be forever discovering new links between cancer and everyday objects and substances that surround us. At what point do we say ‘actually I am aware that the consumption of alcohol is not perfectly safe but YOLO I’m gonna drink this G&T’. After all, we take known and unknown risks every single day when we leave our homes each morning. That’s the nature of living, is it not? Of course it makes sense to try and prevent people dying from cancer. What I don’t understand is why these public bodies are being so selective with their  ‘cancer-linked’ substances. What would happen if the government were to ban everything that could ever cause us harm? What would that society look like?

Must we withdraw the pleasure that light/moderate consumers of alcohol get from pouring themselves a drink or two from their favourite liqueur or wine bottle? Granted there exist many people who won’t stop at a few drinks and who are at risk of harm. Likewise, there are those who cannot resist the allure of sugar and find themselves over-consuming it. Do we decided that any product contain sugar merits plain packaging? Or is it easier to turn a blind eye to the risks associated with red meat and sugar, and instead focus of the risk associated with alcohol?

I don’t have any answers. I ask myself these questions to try and understand my own feelings on this matter. Do I personally feel that I would rather enjoy an occasional alcoholic drink from a beautifully-designed bottle than have my enjoyment threatened by the guilt associated with generic packaging and graphic warnings? Yes. For now, I’d rather have my beautiful gin bottle and drink from it. Then again, not only am I the kind of person who can enjoy ‘just the one’ drink, I am also a graphic designer by trade! That is to say that I have a penchant for beautiful packaging, be it in the form of an attractive printing method or an elegant ligature. If plain alcohol packaging was introduced, my favourite alcoholic beverages would immediately lose their charm. That is not what I want!

Surpassing the allure of elegantly-designed packaging, is the liberty to chose which substances we consume, regardless of whether or not they have a positive effect on our health. Why would a public body try to police my choice to consume alcohol, when there are so many other highly-addictive (and arguably equally-linked-to-cancer) consumables that I may not even recognise as posing a risk? Food for thought, eh? (sorrysorrysorry such a bad pun!)

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