Mental Health and Addictions Health Promotion team advocates for alcohol warning labels

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Where we live, work and play have an impact. Can I access food? Do I have a home? Is my neighborhood free from violence, vandalism, and pollution? Am I close to social supports and places where I feel included like schools and libraries? Are policies and legislation enacted that prioritize human rights, addressing discrimination and injustice?

As the social determinants of mental health, these are the conditions for consideration in the work of a prevention and health promotion specialist.

Sabrianne Penner (she/her) and Sarah Blades (she/her) are doing this work as part of Mental Health and Addiction’s Health Promotion team at IWK Health. The Health Promotion team works closely with decision makers in government, community advocates and fellow health professionals to create environments where children, youth, and families can thrive.

“We work to address population level harms, and when it comes to alcohol, there is absolutely related community harm,” says Penner.

Recently, the Canadian Centre for Substance Use and Addiction (CCSA) released new low risk drinking guidelines to inform individual behaviour.

“When there are updated messages on health risks, it sort of warms the waters to think about what other changes can we make in the alcohol environment,” says Blades.

And these changes span from the individual to the policy level, holding governments and manufacturers accountable.

“We know that making changes in a retail environment or making changes in the community and social environment also helps people to experience less serious harm from substances,” says Blades.

In October, the team collaborated with the Canadian Alcohol Policy Evaluation research group to mobilize a letter to the federal government advocating for alcohol warning labels.

Penner says the letter gained significant traction in the healthcare sector and was signed by IWK’s CEO, Krista Jangaard. “We put it forward and asked for her support and she gladly endorsed it,” says Penner.

As part of increased transparency about the contents of beverages containing alcohol, standardized alcohol warning labels would include health information such as cancer risks.

“Warning labels are one part of a bigger strategy to reduce alcohol-related harms,” says Blades. “We’re not interested in shaming anyone into drinking less. We’re involved in advocating for warning labels because it normalizes the sharing of information about alcohol products on their labels in a standardized way.”

In addition to the call for warning labels, the letter advocated for a federal act for alcohol, like those in place for cannabis or tobacco and vaping products.

A federal act for alcohol products could establish packaging regulations and address pricing standards, as well as regulate how the alcohol industry markets products and sponsors community events and infrastructure.

The federal acts for tobacco and vaping products, as well as cannabis, have within their stated purpose to reduce exposure to harm from these products to children, youth, and people who do not consume the products. A solid federal alcohol act has potential to support healthy environments for children, youth, and families in the Maritimes and beyond.

For up-to-date low risk drinking guidelines, visit