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What part of ‘alcohol causes brain damage’ don’t they get?

It was the turn of the Century when I raised a petition to the New Zealand Parliament calling for alcohol products to carry a Government regulated pregnancy warning. Apart from that making me sound (and feel) old, it infuses me with intense frustration that nothing is in place 13 years later.

I say, ‘nothing’ because I don’t count the recent move by some in the liquor industry to voluntarily place an ad hoc alcohol and pregnancy label on some products. This is nothing short of a cynical ploy to stave off Government regulation that has been called for multiple times over the past decade or so; and it may be working for them. A recent letter from New Zealand’s Minister for Food Safety, provides an example of political hand washing. A constituent, asking about the status of Government action on alcohol and pregnancy labelling was told to contact the alcohol industry.

If you haven’t cottoned onto the industry ploy, those companies that are volunteering (some are refusing to join in for various reasons), are depicting a barely visible 6mm graphic on the reverse labelling ‘real estate’ (yes that is what they call it) or are adding a generic ‘drink responsibly’ message that directs consumers to an industry website.

I will leave you to judge how effective that will be. To test it out one day, I unscientifically asked a group of youths to examine an empty NZ wine bottle which had one of the industry selected images. Most couldn’t spot it without being prompted as to what to look for and one young man thought the small circle with the image of the pregnant woman and the ban sign across her belly (which I personally find offensive) was telling women to wear their seat belts! Whether any liquor company does or does not engage with this exercise is irrelevant. Either way, it places the protection of their intellectual real estate above the protection of the intellect of unborn babies.

So how did we reach the ridiculous point of the industry calling the shots on public health measures? There are several factors at play as far as I can tell. One is fear factor; Governments experiencing the chill effect of potential litigation; as has occurred recently over tobacco regulation. In a nutshell, the threat is sufficient to ensure that trade trumps health.

Another aspect is the obscure notion that, ‘Everyone knows not to drink during pregnancy already so it’s not important to label the product’. I have just had the misfortune to listen to 2 DJs on a breakfast radio station saying that a couple of drinks now and again are perfectly okay during pregnancy. So no, not everyone does know.

Then there is the highly favoured mantra, ‘A lack of evidence of effectiveness’. This notion has been exploited intensively by the industry (so why are they now labelling??) but it can also be heard across Government and research sectors alike. It is based on a few surveys carried out when the USA mandated alcohol warnings in 1989, indicating that there was increased awareness but little change in drinking behaviour. As there is no Australian and New Zealand evidence – because nothing is in place – this outmoded USA research, viewed in isolation of all other factors, continues to be relied upon. It is flimsy at best but is constantly referred to by those opposed to or ambivalent about Government regulation.

What it also does, is leave aside a vitally important question – effectiveness of what? There is clear evidence that such labelling increases public awareness. Warnings of this nature, whether for prams, pills or pillows, are there to inform, to assist informed choice – the alpha and omega of the exercise. To then argue that such information is pointless because there is not enough proof of compliance with the advice is patently absurd and sets a dangerous precedent.

Most Governments seem to get that alcohol, this widely available and heavily promoted substance can actually be the cause of lifelong brain damage and a safety margin is unknown. How that information fails to elicit priority government action to require the product to carry effective information is frankly beyond my comprehension. Even the liquor industry is prepared to cover their backside on the strength of that evidence!

If this was soy sauce or a new toy with proven toxic consequences it would likely be removed from sale. The call for Governments to regulate a pregnancy warning for alcoholic beverages is not about removal of the product. It is a call for Government to take the reins on behalf of citizens and ensure they know about the direct and proven health risks from consuming alcohol. It should not be left in the hands of producers.

Responding to a Statement of Concern this month about industry interference in public health policy, the head of the World Health Organisation Dr Margaret Chan confirmed that, “the alcohol industry has no role in the formulation of alcohol policies, which must be protected from distortion by commercial or vested interests”. I don’t know that our respective Governments share that view. If they did, would we have had a decade of delays and limp-wristed responses? Would we be speculating whether this is to appease the industry? Or could we simply be seeing apathy at work because it is so much easier to blame consumers – mothers in particular – isn’t it? Only they know the answers, but the longer I wait for Government action in this matter, the more inclined I am to believe these are close to the truth, and it is seriously disturbing.

Christine Rogan

Christine Rogan is a Health Promotion Advisor for the Alcohol Healthwatch Trust, a non-government organisation based in Auckland working to reduce alcohol related harm through effective health promotion. Christine coordinates the Fetal Alcohol Network NZ, established to connect the workforce and families and projects aimed at identifying and reducing the harm associated with drinking alcohol during pregnancy.


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