The initiative, the first of its kind in Europe, involves six major drinks companies and has the backing of the Government. Instead of displaying the amount of alcohol by volume, a wide range of beer, ciders, wines and spirits will be labelled to show how many units of alcohol they contain.
But some consumers are worried the units figure could cause more harm than good, because people would use it as guide to how much they could drink before driving.
The labelling involves such well-known names as Bacardi Breezers, Bell's Whisky, Boddington's Bitter, Gordon's Gin, Murphy's Stout and Martini Vermouth. The products represent a major part of the UK alcohol market. They include 30 per cent of premium lagers and 88 per cent of stouts in the take-home market. Also included are 42 per cent of vodkas and 48 per cent of gin.
The Government has already changed the way it promotes recommended drinking levels to include daily, rather than weekly, intakes in an attempt to limit excessive alcohol consumption. It yesterday launched a leaflet outlining recommended drinking levels which will be available in supermarkets and off-licences.
"Misuse of alcohol damages public health. I welcome this partnership with the drinks industry which will promote sensible drinking," said Tessa Jowell, Minister for Public Health. But lunchtime drinkers in Manchester yesterday said they thought the new labelling system would be confusing for drivers and not improve health.
"I would tend to use it as an indicator of how much I can drink before driving. It doesn't interest me in health terms," said Georgina Campbell, a 26-year-old cinema administrator.
Kerry Rooney, 34, said: "The units figure should not give people the wrong idea. It makes no difference - you should never drink and drive."
Misuse of alcohol has serious implications for public health, costing the NHS about pounds 164m a year and the country about pounds 2.7bn in lost working hours. Between nine million and 15 million working days are lost each year through alcohol-related illness. One in 10 people in the UK are thought to have a drinking problem, according to the Health Education Authority (HEA). The 1997 Health Survey for England found 29 per cent of men and 16 per cent of women were drinking over the recommended levels.
Dr Lynne Friedli, alcohol programme manager for the HEA, said: "Labelling drinks with unit information is essential if consumers are to understand how much they are drinking. More manufacturers should follow the lead."
A spokesman for Alcohol Concern said: "We are in favour of this scheme as we want consumers to have as much information as possible about what they are drinking. But we would also like to see labels displaying recommended levels of drinking."
The drinks companies involved said they had responded to recent research by the Portman Group, the alcohol industry's self-regulatory body, which showed that almost half of frequent beer drinkers and one-third of frequent wine drinkers did not know how many units of alcohol are contained in their drinks.
3-4 units per day or less.
Regularly drinking 4 or more units a day poses a health risk.
2-3 units per day or less.
Regularly drinking 3 or more units a day poses a health risk.
A unit of alcohol is equivalent to half a pint of ordinary strength beer, lager of cider, a small glass of wine or a single pub measure of spirits
Units per drink
Fosters lager, 4% (pint) 2.2
Champagne, 12% (125ml) 1.5
Whisky, 40% (25ml shot) 0.9
Wine, 9% strength (125ml glass) 1.1; 14% strength (125ml glass) 1.75Reuse content