Killjoys, calories and labelmania
Labels aren’t just neutral information - they’re there to warn us off from the things we enjoy.
The Royal Society for Public Health has called for regulations to force drinks manufacturers to put calorie labels on their products. Then we would know that a pint of lager contains about 200 calories, a large red wine has about 220 calories, and so on. At a time when obesity rates are a significant concern, what’s wrong with providing information?
It’s slightly mad to think that labelling booze will make any difference to obesity rates. We drink to become inebriated to one extent or another. If we are on a health kick, we might cut down or cut out the booze, but otherwise the calorie content of our drinks is irrelevant to the matter in hand. Alcohol consumption may make up perhaps 10 per cent of someone’s calorie intake, but at most labelling would induce a switch to slightly lower-calorie alternatives or maybe foregoing that extra glass of one’s favourite poison. The effect on waistlines will be insignificant. Calorie labelling on actual food has produced little impact on obesity. Why would it make much difference when it comes to alcohol when the whole point of drinking is to lower one’s inhibitions and be incautious?
But calorie labels are part of a much bigger problem. Governments seem to be suffering from labelmania. No activity is complete without a label reminding us of one deleterious effect or another. For example, a bottle of Sainsbury’s own-label pinot noir contains - in addition to information about grapes, country of origin, percentage of alcohol by volume and so on - units of alcohol per glass and per bottle, a guide to recommended units per day for men and women, a warning to ‘avoid alcohol if pregnant or trying to conceive’, information on recycling, allergy advice and the website address of Drinkaware, the alcohol information service funded by drinks companies and supermarkets. (Sainsbury’s already voluntarily provides calorie information per glass and per 100ml, too.) Food is already plastered with labels for ingredients, fat and sugar content and so on, but campaigners also want to see ‘traffic light’ labelling of food, too, so we can we warned off eating the ‘wrong’ thing through simple colour coding. And, of course, cigarettes have long had warning labels. Australian smokers now have to put up with gruesome ‘plain packs’, that are almost entirely covered in warnings and grotesque images with all company-specific branding removed, and the idea is actively being considered in many other countries.
The combined effect is to place a barrier between us and any pleasurable activity. Even if a particular label doesn’t stop us from going ahead, it provides an insidious source of guilt. The effect is to make us constantly check ourselves before eating, drinking or smoking, diminishing the pleasures of our bad and not-so-bad habits.
In part, the thinking of health zealots is that if we can’t be persuaded to mend our ways because of the most obvious harm from a product, then pointing out some lesser evil might do the trick. Not persuaded to quite the fags because of lung cancer? How about the fact that you smell? Unit labels on your bottles and beer glasses not turning you away from the demon drink? How about the idea that it might make you fat?
Adding calories counts to beer, wine and spirits might look like neutral information, but the thinking that drives it is still about prohibition.
Watch Rob debate the issue on Five News