Do consumers understand labels on edibles?

Research suggests consumers confused by complex labels

Cannabis edibles are increasingly popular among medical and recreational users. They offer several advantages over smoking or vaping, such as being more discreet, easier to consume and leading to milder but more prolonged drug effects. However, cannabis edibles can also pose public health risks, including  unintended consumption by adults, children and pets, or taking a larger dose than intended. You can find a detailed analysis of these aspects here

In jurisdictions that allow the commercialization of cannabis edibles, governments have devoted considerable attention to controlling their risks. A common policy has been to include detailed warnings and indications on the labels of the products with the goal of protecting users and the population in general. Is this enough?

Dr Sheryl Cates, Kristen Giombi and Katherine Kosa from RTI International sought to answer this question. They conducted a study with a dozen focus groups of nearly a hundred consumers and non-consumers in order to analyze the clarity and limitations of current label warnings found on edible products. The report may be found in the International Journal of Drug Policy.

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Experienced consumers were generally familiar with purchasing edibles at retail establishments, with some stating that they generally pay attention to label information such as potency and serving size. Consumers tended to be unaware of other information required by law, such as health warnings, extraction process and listings of nonorganic pesticides and herbicides used during cultivation. Other users, who generally acquire edibles through friends or home cooking, were unfamiliar with the labels, as were most non-users.

Most participants were initially surprised by the amount of information contained in the product labels, with some expressing concern that this could detract consumers from reading them. Non-users were surprised by the statement that 'intoxication effects may be delayed by two or more hours', and both non-users and users liked the advice provided voluntarily by a manufacturer saying that 'until you know the effects of this product, eat only half a segment and wait a minimum of 75 minutes before consuming another portion' (although some thought this was at odds with the previous warning).

Non-users often failed to locate the written indication that the products contained marijuana, a provision required in the state of Washington, or to interpret the universal symbol of cannabis required in the state of Colorado. Non-users were also surprised by the absence of information about the intoxicating effects of the products.

The majority of label statements were easy to understand and considered useful, with the most common complaint being small font sizes. Some of the labels that generated more confusion referred to the extraction process (e.g., N-butane) or the listing of active ingredients such as CBD or [delta]9THC (most people were unsure of the meaning of the [delta]9).

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Serving size information was regarded as crucial by experienced users. Although 10mg THC servings affect each person differently, this information helps by providing a 'baseline' to guide consumption. Non-users were unsure of the value of this information and some suggested that an equivalent in number of 'hits' (of a joint) be provided.

All participants understood that the 10mg referred to a serving and not the entire package.

Based on the information gathered in these focus groups, the researchers offer a few suggestions for improving label descriptions.

Since all statements were considered useful, but often too extensive or difficult to read, it could help to randomly display a subgroup of labels on each product (similar to what is done with tobacco products). Other suggestions include using revised symbols and graphics to improve understanding and using plain packaging to detract the attention of children.

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