Serve the message straight

Alcohol Healthwatch will not be the only organisation frustrated by the latest delay to mandatory labelling on alcohol products about the risk of drinking when pregnant.

It had been hoped the push for compulsory labelling, which has dragged on for years, was about to succeed. Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) had developed a label which was ready to go once it had the approval of the Australia New Zealand Ministerial Forum on Food Regulations. (That group must sign off on all food standards.)

New Zealand has one of the 10 votes on this forum, with our representative Food Safety Minister Damien O’Çonnor. Other ministers come from the Federal Government and the various Australian states and territories.

At the forum meeting this month, it is understood Mr O’Connor voted for the label to go ahead, but only four votes were recorded for that. No public record of the voting is given in the communique about the meeting.

The communique said the forum recognised the significant impacts of Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) in Australia and New Zealand and maintained its commitment to the mandatory warning label.

However, it considered the proposed label would place an unreasonable cost burden on the industry, asking for the colour of the label and the wording to be revisited.

Voluntary labelling which has been in place since 2011 has been unimpressive. Alcohol Healthwatch’s executive director Dr Nicki Jackson says there has been low uptake, particularly on products that appeal to women, with miniscule labels and messages which are confusing.

News reports from Australia say the industry opposes the "health warning" wording on the label saying it should say "pregnancy advice". An Alcohol Beverages Australia representative has also been quoted as saying the red and white labels would be a financial burden, particularly for small vineyards and brewers. Hit by bushfires, floods and coronavirus, the cost of the label could be "the last nail in the coffin".

Anybody who has observed the lobbying behaviour of Big Tobacco will recognise the parallels with Big Booze in this scenario.

Of course the industry wants to play down any notion its product is unhealthy, at a time when we are learning more and more about alcohol use’s contribution to many illnesses. To serve any purpose, the label must be a warning which can be seen, unlike the tiny grey inconsistent labels you might struggle to find now.

We recognise there are questions around the effectiveness of warning labels on products in changing behaviour, but like any public health advertising, including that we are seeing around Covid-19, each bit of consistent information can help drive the central message home.

The message which women need to heed is that there is no known safe level for alcohol use during pregnancy and they should stop drinking if they are trying to get pregnant, if they could be pregnant or are pregnant.

New Zealand research found that although many women stopped drinking after becoming aware of pregnancy, 23% continued to drink during the first trimester, dropping to 13% in the second and third trimesters.

Effects on babies exposed to alcohol before birth may be low birth weight, heart defects, behaviour problems, intellectual disability and distinctive facial features

The ministerial forum has asked the FSANZ to report back within three months.

We hope Mr O’Connor and the ministers who voted with him will be doing their own lobbying in that time. Watering down the label would make it pointless.


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