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Now experts want ALCOHOL to be sold in plain packaging… or be plastered with cigarette-style health warnings

  • Experts  gathered views from 50 young Scots who drank at least once a month 
  • Packaging was found to be a key factor in getting attention and creating appeal 
  • They contrasted ‘unrestricted’ booze packaging with plain rules for cigarettes 
  • Charities have said findings show need for more regulation in alcohol marketing

Alcohol should be sold in plain packaging or be plastered with cigarette-style health warnings, campaigners say.

It comes after a study suggested uniform branding — mirroring how tobacco is sold — would be less appealing.

Stirling University researchers believe doing so would help cut drinking rates.

They warned attractive colours adorned on bottles of beer, wine and spirits could be dulling important medical warnings.

The authors say their findings provide ‘pause for thought’ on ‘unrestricted’ alcohol boxes and wrappers.

Alison Douglas, scripts mailorder pharmacy chief executive of Alcohol Focus Scotland — the charity that funded the study, called for immediate action. 

She said: ‘Mandating health warnings on alcohol products would help to counter the attractiveness of packaging and address current low levels of knowledge of alcohol harm.’

But industry groups have hit back, saying making packaging appealing was common across all forms of marketing. 

Researchers from the University of Scotland said findings on alcohol marketing and young people provide ‘pause for thought’ on why there are unrestricted designs in alcohol packaging compared to those for cigarettes (stock image)

In the study 50 young Scots participated in focus groups where they shared their thoughts with researchers on the pictured alcoholic drinks

Would you still be in the mood for a Mars bar if it came with a photo of someone getting open heart surgery? 

Experts suggest cigarette-style warnings on the nation’s favourite chocolate bars could help tackle obesity. 

Similar pictures have adorned tobacco products since 2008 and are credited with pushing smoking rates down in the UK in recent years.

Now experts from Cambridge University have shown cigarette-style packaging would also put people off junk food.

Seven in 10 people chose a piece of fruit over a Galaxy, Mars, Dairy Milk or Snickers that had a graphic label, in one test of the tactic. 

Messages alerted them to the risk of heart disease, obesity and cancer from eating ‘excess calories’.

In comparison, only about 40 per cent of the volunteers chose fruit when they saw standard chocolate packaging. 

Researchers claim emphasising the ‘relationship between the product and its health effects may be the key to targeting unhealthy food consumption’.

The study found that random gruesome images that had no links to people’s health also put them off eating chocolate bars.

Some participants were asked to choose between fruit or chocolate that had a photo of a dead dog that had been abandoned on the road.

The study looked at whether young drinkers were influenced by the packaging when it came to deciding which alcoholic beverage to buy.

It found some of the 50 young Scotts bought drinks based on seeing colourful, attractive or memorable packaging.

Others opted for small packs for ease of drinking on public transport or concealing it from police, according to the study in the Journal for Studies on Alcohol and Drugs.

Some participants reported downing 80 units per week — equivalent to roughly six pints of low strength beer, or 11 shots of spirits per day. 

NHS recommendations say adults should not drink more than 14 units each week.

Volunteers were presented with a range of alcoholic beverages sold in Britain, such as beer Stella Artois, vodka brand Smirnoff, and Gordon’s gin. 

One young man said: ‘I don’t actually like beer, but I bought it [Brewdog] specifically because I liked the packaging.’  

Another male said: ‘Colour is what attracts people, it’s all about colours.’

One female respondent said she preferred small packs of slim cans of wine like Barefoot as they ‘quick, easy, grab and go’ and therefore were easier to consume in public settings like trains whist avoiding attention from police.  

Others reported keeping old bottles of ‘cool’, unusual, or expensive alcoholic drinks like Hendrick’s Gin or Crystal Head Vodka.    

Lead researcher Daniel Jones said: ‘Alcohol packaging can capture attention, create appeal, and help shape perceptions of the product, drinker and drinking experience.

‘Our findings may help to inform future research and policies. 

‘Including prominent warnings on packs could reduce appeal, increase awareness of alcohol-related risks, and support a decrease in consumption.’

Since 2016, all tobacco products in the UK have had to be sold in drab, standardised packaging after health groups campaigned for the change. 

Matt Lambert, chief executive of Britain’s alcohol marketing regulator, argued the study’s findings were unsurprising.

‘This study demonstrates that the packaging of a product is designed to appeal to different audiences something that would ring true across all forms of marketing and is not in itself a surprise,’ he said.

The NHS recommends that adults drink no more than 14 units each week — that’s 14 single shots of spirit or six pints of beer or a bottle and a half of wine

Stirling scientists have previously proposed cigarette style warnings on alcohol products producing these mock-ups in a study in February this year

And this is the type of chocolate bar packing scientists say could reduce desire for chocolates  as a possible way to reduce obesity

Other scientists have proposed cigarettes style health warnings on a number of products to tackle obesity, including drinks high in sugar. Pictured here is a  mock-up of what a warning label about the health risks of sugar on a soft drink could look like

He added that the group’s code of practice ensures alcohol is not marketed inappropriately and highlighted how adherence to the code had contributed to ‘over a decade of decline in underage drinking in Scotland.’

Alcoholic drinks in the UK only legally need to include their alcohol percentage by volume, total volume, and country of origin on the label.

However, many also include how many units of alcohol is contained in the drink as well as a general warning that pregnant women should not consume then. 

Alcohol-related harm is estimated to cost the NHS £3.5billion per year in England alone, and 8nearly 9,000 booze-related deaths were logged in the UK in 2020. 

There is an increasing movement to expand cigarettes style graphic health warning packaging to variety of products such as alcohol and chocolate bars. 

MailOnline revealed yesterday that experts were suggesting cigarette-style warnings on the nation’s favourite chocolate bars could help tackle obesity. 

In February this year, experts from Stirling found similar warnings on vodka bottles which included phrases like ‘alcohol causes mouth cancer’, as well as images of people clutching their liver as if in pain discouraged drinking.

In tests on 1,300 young Britons, those who viewed the warnings were less likely to find alcohol appealing and more likely to think about the health risks. 


One screening tool used widely by medical professionals is the AUDIT (Alcohol Use Disorders Identification Tests). Developed in collaboration with the World Health Organisation, the 10-question test is considered to be the gold standard in helping to determine if someone has alcohol abuse problems.

The test has been reproduced here with permission from the WHO.

To complete it, answer each question and note down the corresponding score.


0-7: You are within the sensible drinking range and have a low risk of alcohol-related problems.

Over 8: Indicate harmful or hazardous drinking.

8-15: Medium level of risk. Drinking at your current level puts you at risk of developing problems with your health and life in general, such as work and relationships. Consider cutting down (see below for tips).

16-19: Higher risk of complications from alcohol. Cutting back on your own may be difficult at this level, as you may be dependent, so you may need professional help from your GP and/or a counsellor.

20 and over: Possible dependence. Your drinking is already causing you problems, and you could very well be dependent. You should definitely consider stopping gradually or at least reduce your drinking. You should seek professional help to ascertain the level of your dependence and the safest way to withdraw from alcohol.

Severe dependence may need medically assisted withdrawal, or detox, in a hospital or a specialist clinic. This is due to the likelihood of severe alcohol withdrawal symptoms in the first 48 hours needing specialist treatment.

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