After 20 year fight, vote to be held on putting warnings for pregnant women on alcoholic products

Source: 1News

It has taken 20 years, but a petition for a warning label to be put on alcohol products warning pregnant women about consuming the products is set to be voted on today.

Twenty years ago a petition was delivered to Parliament calling for a specific warning to inform pregnant women about the risk alcohol poses to unborn babies.

Fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD) is caused by the consumption of alcohol during pregnancy. It can result in intellectual and behavioural deficits, as well as irreversible damage to the brain and body.

Today, the health warning will finally be voted on by members of the Australian and New Zealand ministerial forum for food regulation.

Christine Rogan, a health promotions adviser at Alcohol Healthwatch, delivered the petition to Parliament two decades ago.

"It's taken that long to go though Government processes, reviews, reports, reviews of reports," she told TVNZ1's Breakfast this morning.

Ms Rogan said the labels were not about blaming women, but rather recognising that there's a widely available product that is heavily promoted.

Industry lobby groups had fought the idea of labels, but Ms Rogan said, "we're talking about something that harms unborn babies".

"We're talking about a product that sits on supermarket shelves, it's freely available, it's near the lollies and the nappies, and it hasn't got anything on that product to say 'this is harmful if you drink it during pregnancy'.

"There is a lot of misconceptions about it and that's what the label is going to help address. It's not the full story, it's not the only thing that we need to be doing, but it's a foundation on which we can build.

"I think it's quite shameless that we've had to wait this long."

In response to the argument about cost, Ms Rogan said it was a minor cost and one which would be passed on to the consumer anyway.

"We're very, very fortunate to have great support from our New Zealand Government and we're hoping the Australians will do the same."

A spokesperson from the NZ Alcohol Beverages Council, which is funded by various food and beverage companies, said the Council supported a consistent labelling standard for their products with pregnancy warning messages and had been doing so "voluntarily for many years".

"The alcohol industry strongly supports the message that pregnant women, or women thinking of becoming pregnant, should not drink," the spokesperson told 1 NEWS.

However, the spokesperson said the industry thought warning labels by themselves didn't work.

The spokesperson pointed to research by the Ministry of Primary Industries which showed as little as five per cent of people recalled pregnancy warning labels without prompting, with that number rising to 44 per cent with visual prompting.

The study concluded most of those who recalled the warning labels had a "clear understanding" that people who were pregnant or possibly pregnant shouldn't drink alcohol.

Recent research by Crown entity Health Promotion Agency also found there was already high awareness that drinking while pregnant wasn't recommended. The research found 96 per cent of women said they intended to stop drinking during pregnancy.

"So, the real question is, how do we communicate and connect with the 4 per cent who have indicated they wouldn’t stop drinking entirely if they were pregnant?" the spokesperson said.

"The best place for a woman to get information about alcohol and pregnancy is from her doctor, where she can have a proper conversation and get the right advice.

"But, we would like to see more proactive influencing from government, healthcare providers and others who influence women’s choices during pregnancy."

The spokesperson said it urged governments to invest in social change programmes and targeted education, for example, from GPs and midwives.

"Changing attitudes and behaviours needs to be more than merely providing on-label advice."

The spokesperson said the alcohol industry was concerned about the high cost of the labelling change given it didn't think labelling in itself would be the most effective solution.

"The labelling standard being signed off this week will most likely see the colour red used on the basis this will improve a label’s effectiveness.

"The $250 million it will cost to change the label in New Zealand seems out of step with the thinly-evidenced additional benefit being used to justify it.

"Other options were not explored – the use of contrasting colour for example was never looked at – we think that pragmatically this option would not only reduce the cost but be just as effective as red."

The spokesperson said the alcohol industry thought the Ministry of Health's plan to reduce alcohol-related harm in its FASD Action Plan was "woefully underfunded" for what it was trying to achieve.

A Ministry of Health spokesperson told 1 NEWS there is currently no New Zealand-specific data on the incidence of FASD.

However the Ministry of Health considers that between three and five per cent, or 1800 to 3000, children born each year have the disorder.

The spokesperson said the estimate was based on recent research from Canada and the United States, as well as evidence of higher rates of alcohol consumption during pregnancy in New Zealand compared to north America.

"The Ministry of Health advise women not to consume alcohol during pregnancy and recommend to stop drinking alcohol if you could be pregnant, are pregnant or are trying to get pregnant.

“There is no known safe level of alcohol consumption during pregnancy.”