SYDNEY -- Australia's liquor industry launched a voluntary program to label its products with health warnings Tuesday, possibly to pre-empt future criticism that it is contributing to excessive drinking that is part of the national culture.
About 80 percent of alcohol sold in the country – beer, wine and spirits – will carry the warnings, primarily aimed at teenagers and pregnant women, said Trish Worth of DrinkWise Australia, a group funded by the alcohol industry.
The group, founded in 2005, aims to overturn the traditionally benign view that Australians have had of drinking, even among teenagers. According to DrinkWise, the average Australian starts drinking alcohol at 15 1/2 years of age and more than a quarter of 14-19 year olds are putting themselves at risk of harm at least once a month.
"We see physically mature teenagers and assume that their brains are mature, but they are not," Worth told reporters. "We have to challenge ideas that are so traditional and historic in Australia."
The first few products with warning labels are already in stores but most others will introduce them gradually over the next few months, she said.
The three principal messages are "Kids and Alcohol Don't Mix," "It is Safest Not to Drink While Pregnant," and "Is Your Drinking Harming Yourself or Others?"
The voluntary move comes ahead of an expected government decision later this year to make warnings mandatory in Australia, similar to some 14 other countries including the U.S.
Australia's culture of drinking goes back to 1788 when the first settlers – British convicts and their jailers – landed in the country after an eight-month voyage. They celebrated the end of their ordeal with a raucous booze-fueled party that established a time-honored tradition.
Former Prime Minister Robert Hawke once held the Guinness World Record for downing two and a half pints of beer in 11 seconds, and former cricket legend David Boon is best known for a 1989 flight from Sydney to London during which he drank 52 beers.
Binge drinking is a problem especially during the so-called "Schoolies Week," marking graduation from high school and often associated with turning 18, the legal age for drinking. Binge drinking often leads to fights, drink driving and unwanted sex.
Ian Hickie, executive director at the Brain and Mind Research Institute at the University of Sydney, said alcohol disrupts brain development, which is at its most intense between age 12 and 20.
But "our teenagers think they are bulletproof," he said. "What is sad in Australia is that the campaign against alcohol is being led by police. We need to have a wider discussion in the community. ... The DrinkWise campaign might precipitate a discussion."
According to government statistics, the proportion of people drinking at high risk level has increased from 8.2 percent in 1995 to 13.4 percent in 2004-2005, when the last National Health Survey was conducted. The increase has been greater for women.