Opinion: Labelling not the answer to Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders

18 July, 2018 by Andy Young

This column was submitted by Fergus Taylor, Executive Director of Alcohol Beverages Australia, for the July issue of National Liquor News.

Last month, the Food Regulation Standing Committee released a policy options paper seeking targeted consultation on Pregnancy warning labels on packaged alcoholic beverages.

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Alcohol consumption during pregnancy can harm the developing foetus and result in a range of lifelong physical and/or neurodevelopmental impairments in the child, which are considered as Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASD).

Through DrinkWise, the industry has adopted the targeted and specific pregnancy pictogram and or text on the majority of its products. This has produced tangible outcomes, such as contributing to increasing awareness among pregnant women to not consume alcohol, and has clearly demonstrated the industry is capable of being an integral component in the campaign to prevent or reduce harms from alcohol consumption in the Australian community.

The results from the most recent National Drug Strategy Household Survey (NDSHS) show 98.8 per cent of women in Australia either abstain or drink less alcohol while pregnant, and this trend of abstaining from or reducing alcohol consumption during pregnancy has grown nationally for well over a decade.

The effects of FASD have been well-documented and evidence has shown it is a multifactorial illness with interdependent maternal risk factors, including age, demographic, education, nutrition, other drug use, socioeconomic status and partner’s alcohol consumption. Evidence-based and targeted harm-reduction strategies and, more specifically, medical practitioner and nurse-led brief interventions, have immense potential to reduce FASD rates through culturally sensitive means and cannot be underestimated as effective intervention measures.

The consultation process is disappointing in that it fails to correctly acknowledge the already high awareness about alcohol consumption during pregnancy. In doing so, it fails to explore the more logical questions it poses in developing a successful FASD strategy. A logical question to be addressed is why certain women continue to consume alcohol during pregnancy, albeit mainly moderately, despite health advice from their medical practitioner to the contrary? We also need to ask how measures can be implemented to instigate behavioural change.

This question reinforces the importance of investigating the relationship between the provision of information during pregnancy, the relevance of that information to the individual, and their consequent alcohol consumption during pregnancy. This will enable an improvement in the information they receive and thereby lower the risk and incidence of FASD.

This is potentially far more important than continuing to inform this section of the community about an issue they’re already well aware of.

In the limited context of the consultation parameters, voluntary industry self-regulation will allow the well-intentioned objectives of the labelling policy to be achieved, without requiring an administrative burden on government or an unnecessary and damaging increased cost to industry, our millions of customers, and the taxpayer.