More than words: The ethical implications of language in alcohol-related health warning label discourses

Emma Muhlack1, Jaklin Eliott2, Annette Braunack-Mayer3, Drew Carter4

1 School of Public Health, University of Adelaide, Adelaide, South Australia, 5005
2 School of Public Health, University of Adelaide, Adelaide, South Australia, 5005
3 School of Public Health, University of Adelaide, Adelaide, South Australia, 5005
4 School of Public Health, University of Adelaide, Adelaide, South Australia, 5005

For many researchers outside the field of bioethics, ethical considerations in research consist of meeting institutional requirements for proposed research. However, the fundamental assumptions of reported research are also valid targets for ethical evaluation. In this study, we show how problematic ethical arguments underpinning scholarship can be identified through examination of language used in reporting research.

We reviewed academic literature (106 publications), advocacy group statements, and industry bodies, and identified justificatory language referring to mandatory warning labels on alcoholic beverages. We then examined this language to identify and clarify themes and any relationships between them.

We found that the academic literature most often drew from three nested arguments, collectively consistent with the tenets of liberalism dominant in developed democracies, namely: that warning labels would (1) inform, thereby (2) change drinking behaviour and (3) ultimately reduce alcohol-related social and economic burdens on society. This is contrasted with both literature from industry bodies, focussed solely on the informative nature of warning labels, and advocacy literature, with a more sophisticated argument in support of labels as part of a comprehensive suite of interventions.

The assumptions evident in the academic literature, and some industry literature, clearly assumed a justification at odds with known mechanisms of change to health-affecting behaviours (information on risk often fails to reduce risky behaviour). By contrast, the arguments proposed by health advocate organisations were supported by data, and acknowledged various social and economic influences upon consumers’ decision-making regarding alcohol consumption. Whilst it is important to ensure that the mechanics of research are ethically sound, it is equally important to understand underlying assumptions and biases and how they might have an effect on the design and reporting of research.


Biography

With a background in philosophy and communications, Emma joined the School of Population Health as a PhD candidate in January 2015.

Her research considers the ethical issues around the implementation of cancer warning labels in connection with the ARC Linkage Project “Public and ethical responses to mandated alcohol warning labels about increased long-term risk of cancer” (LP120200175).

About the Association

The Australasian Association of Bioethics and Health Law (AABHL) was formed in 2009.

It encourages open discussion and debate on a range of bioethical issues, providing a place where people can ask difficult questions about ideas and practices associated with health and illness, biomedical research and human values.

The AABHL seeks to foster a distinctive Australasian voice in bioethics, and provide opportunities for international engagement through its membership, journal and conferences.

Members come from all the contributing humanities, social science and science disciplines that make up contemporary bioethics.

Many members have cross-disciplinary interests and all seek to broaden the dialogues in which all members of the wider community ultimately have an interest.

The AABHL is a supportive, creative and challenging community that provides a rich source of continuing academic refreshment and renewal.

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