Better pregnancy health labels on alcohol a ‘whole-of-community issue’

Morgan Liotta

29/06/2020 12:13:54 PM

Healthcare organisations and individuals around Australia are calling for clear and consistent labelling to expand harm-minimisation strategies.

Pregnant woman drinking
A recent poll indicated that 23% of Australians are not aware that drinking alcohol when pregnant is harmful to an unborn baby.

A national open letter for Australian and New Zealand Food Forum Ministers was launched on 24 June.
This is in response to the Forum on Food Regulation (FoFR) meeting on 20 March, where an evidence-based alcohol health-warning label developed by Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) was presented.
The label was produced by experts to address the ineffectiveness of the alcohol industry’s current labels, which are considered ‘too small’, ‘too confusing’ and ‘not perceived as a warning’.
Food Forum Ministers did not support the warning label at the FoFR, instead requesting FSANZ to consider changing the colour and warning text.
FSANZ research shows that colour and text are critical to the warning being seen and understood and, because most people do not search for warnings, they must be presented in a way that is likely to attract attention in order to be effective.
Alcohol products in Australia are not currently legally required to carry a health warning about the risks they can cause to unborn babies during pregnancy, including stillbirth, miscarriage, low birthweight and fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD).   
The open letter comes ahead of the next Ministerial Forum on 17 July to decide on the pregnancy health-warning label.
Supporting organisations and individuals want people – particularly pregnant women or those planning a pregnancy ­– to have access to clear information about the health and safety of the products they buy.
Professor Carol Bower is Co-Director of the FASD Research Australia Centre of Research Excellence, Telethon Kids Institute – one of the organisations that signed the letter. She said given alcohol is a teratogen, it is important pregnant women and their families have clear and direct warnings.
‘Alcohol products should be clearly labelled with a mandatory warning about this risk, as is required for other products such as medications,’ Professor Bower said.
‘The [FSANZ] label was developed following a literature review and consumer research with both women and men. The proposed label is based on their responses with respect to comprehension, believability, credibility, relevance and whether it is convincing.
‘It will likely have reach beyond women of childbearing age.’

The Australian Drug Foundation (ADF) is another of the organisations supporting the letter. Chief Executive Officer Dr Erin Lalor told newsGP that current pregnancy warning labels can be easily missed, as they might be too small or the colours do not stand out enough.
‘The introduction of clearer health warning labels is essential in protecting babies from alcohol-related harms. All Australians have the right to know if a product is going to harm to their unborn child,’ she said.
‘Clearer, mandatory labels will help raise awareness of alcohol-related harms for both women and men at a time when it is most relevant to the consumer – at the point of purchase and at the point of consumption.
‘The impact of pregnancy health labels reaches beyond pregnant women, as this is a whole-of-community issue.
‘We want to see men and women understanding the harms associated with alcohol during pregnancy so we have the greatest chance of reducing alcohol-related harm.’

Professor Carol Bower says alcohol products should come with a risk warning label, just as medications do.

Findings from a Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education (FARE) polling report revealed that 70% of Australians want an effective health-warning label that is noticeable and easy to understand.
However, 23% said they were not aware that drinking alcohol when pregnant is harmful to an unborn baby. Those aged 25–34 are the least aware, with 35% unable to correctly identify zero alcohol as the only safe amount during pregnancy.
Of particular concern is that the 25–34 age group are the most likely to be considering a pregnancy, emphasising the need to raise their level of awareness about the risks of alcohol use in pregnancy.
Dr Lalor said these findings affirm the need for community awareness and improved consumer understanding of the harms of alcohol use during pregnancy.
‘There are various reasons why people may not understand the risks of drinking alcohol during pregnancy or while trying to conceive,’ she said.
‘This could include lack of alcohol and drug education, mixed messages around associated risks, and lack of impact from current warning labels.
‘Broad public awareness and community health promotion programs are essential to improving knowledge and awareness of the risks.
‘It’s also important that health professionals are educated on FASD, to enable them to routinely ask and advise all women about their alcohol consumption … without stigmatising.’
Professor Bower agrees.
‘Healthcare professionals can help to increase knowledge, understanding and action by providing a clear and consistent message about the risks … and assist [patients] in avoiding prenatal alcohol exposure to their fetus,’ she said.
‘Pre-term birth, low birthweight, small for gestational age, cerebral palsy, intellectual disability, and perinatal and infant mortality have all been linked to prenatal alcohol exposure.’
Dr Lalor believes too many Australians are unaware of the risks of drinking alcohol during pregnancy.
‘We do know that many Australian women consume alcoholic products during pregnancy,’ she said.
‘Data from the National Drug Strategy Household Survey shows that only 56% of women abstained from alcohol during pregnancy and approximately one in four women continued to consume alcohol after they knew they were pregnant.’
Although data around the prevalence of FASD in Australia is lacking due to limitations in diagnosis, Dr Lalor said Australia is believed to have one of the highest rates of alcohol consumption during pregnancy in the world.
‘People affected by fetal alcohol exposure are at risk of life-long brain damage, which may result in learning difficulties, mental illness, contact with the criminal justice system and subsequent incarceration,’ she said.
‘Often, they require lifelong support.’
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