Pregnancy Warning Labels

17 July 2020

Today, the Ministerial Forum on Food Regulation will decide whether to approve a revised proposal from the regulator for mandatory pregnancy warning labels on packaged alcohol.

The reason for the labels is to help prevent Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder – the devastating and lifelong brain and organ damage alcohol causes to the developing baby.

FASD can cause a range of problems: with memory, language, learning and cognitive performance despite a relatively normal IQ, difficulties with speech and language, and sight and hearing problems.

Children born with FASD can struggle with emotional regulation, be unable to plan and organise themselves, and can struggle with impulse control and understanding consequences, which all means they may be unfairly tagged as “naughty” and are at greater risk of contact with the law in later life.

They have higher risks of homelessness, mental ill health, the list goes on and all because they were exposed to alcohol in utero.  It is a devastating legacy but it can be prevented.

This is the second proposal for mandatory warning labels put to the Forum by Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) this year.

The first proposal was knocked back in March by a slim majority of the Forum’s health and agriculture ministers after industry got in their ear. I know from documents I asked to be tabled in the Senate in June that Forum chair Richard Colbeck met twice with the alcohol industry about this issue in the weeks before the March meeting, but appears not to have had any meetings with health advocates.

The Forum claimed the original proposal was “an unreasonable cost burden” to industry – the only criteria it could lean on under the Act - and asked FSANZ to review the use of the colour red in the label and the words “Health Warning”. Unsurprisingly, it seems the industry doesn’t want a warning label that actually looks like a warning label!

In the revised proposal made public on 30 June, FSANZ has made very few changes and in fact has found that it may have overestimated the costs of label changes per product in its original proposal. Keep in mind this is largely a one-off cost to industry which can largely be absorbed in scheduled label changes anytime over three years, while the benefits of avoiding FASD are lifelong.

FSANZ has conservatively estimated the health-related cost of FASD at $27 billion over 20 years, for mild cases alone. This does not include costs to the justice system, broader health and social care costs, costs of lost productivity from individuals with FASD, and the wider toll on individuals, families and the community.

FSANZ’s main concession is to change the signal words on the label from “health warning” to “pregnancy warning” but given the weak reasons it gives for doing so, I think it has only done that to appease opponents and avoid further pushback.

I firmly believe a complaint about a one-off cost doesn’t hold water when weighed against the public health benefit and lifelong impact of FASD.

FASD is a devastating condition.  The only reason this mandatory labelling standard has been put forward is to protect unborn babies from lifelong disabilities.

How can ministers tasked with protecting the public’s health not take the responsible decision? It should make people angry. It certainly makes me angry.

The alcohol industry may include generous donors to the major parties – like the $280,000 Lion Pty Ltd has reportedly donated to the Liberal Party over the past five years and the $22,330 it has donated to the Nationals. Beer and wine makers may also be key economic contributors in states like SA, NSW and Victoria – but these labelling measures will not break them. They simply won’t.

While most women know not to drink in pregnancy, 1 in 7 continue to drink after pregnancy is confirmed because they don’t know or understand the danger. The more a woman drinks in pregnancy, the higher the risks. However, every woman and pregnancy is different and there is simply no known safe level of drinking – that’s why abstinence is the only safe choice in pregnancy.

The prevalence of FASD in Australia is estimated to be around 5% of all births, and the difficulty of diagnosis means some kids are never formally diagnosed and others are misdiagnosed with other conditions.

A clear warning label such as the one proposed by FSANZ tells women – and importantly, their partners and support networks - at the point of purchase and consumption that it is unsafe to drink in pregnancy. It can help them make the smart choice to abstain for those crucial nine months.

The forum meets today and has 60 days to consider the revised FSANZ proposal.

Hopefully, when they go to vote, Senator Colbeck, SA Health Minister Stephen Wade (or his possible proxy Tim Whetstone), and other ministers will recognise the evidence base on which the proposal is made, do their job to act in the public interest, and agree to the mandatory pregnancy warning label as proposed by the regulator. To do anything less would, in my view, be selfish and dishonourable.

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