alcohol warning

By a narrow vote of 6-4, after nearly a decade of kicking the can (and the bottles) down the road, Australasia’s food safety ministers have decreed that a prominent and direct warning of the risks of consuming alcohol during pregnancy must be placed on all alcohol products.

However, the requirement will not come into force until 2023, by which time many Australian women will have consumed alcohol during their pregnancy, unaware of the irreversible damage to their unborn babies from Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD).

A notable opponent of the health measure, which is based on a long-standing recommendation of Food Standards Australia New Zealand, was the federal Food Minister Sen. Richard Colbeck (Libs, Tas) who chairs the ministerial forum that met on 17 July. A decision on the issue had been deferred from previous meetings, the main sticking point being the use, or not, of red ink to highlight the danger presented by alcohol to the unborn. 

Advocates insisted red would make the warning more prominent than the current, barely visible symbol. Claiming to speak on behalf of all beer, wine and spirits purveyors the industry said printing red ink would come at an unbearable cost.

On behalf of the Commonwealth Sen. Colbeck proposed removing the red ink on the words ‘Health Warning’ and the do-not consume symbol. However, this did not seem to reflect federal government unanimity on the issue:  Sophie Harrington, the COO of the National Organisation for Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (NOFASD), a body funded by the Australian Government through the Department of Health, said, “Tens of thousands of Australian families who are impacted by FASD are celebrating today’s decision, because they know how significantly this lifelong disability affects the health and wellbeing of our loved ones. 

Supporting Sen. Colbeck’s position were the governments of NSW, SA and Queensland. The other jurisdictions and NZ supported the upgraded warning.

An accepted amendment will see a change in the signal wording from ‘HEALTH WARNING’ to ‘PREGNANCY WARNING’. 

Sen Colbeck and others, as previously reported in GP Speak, had been lobbied intensively by the alcohol and beverages industry, which was “deeply disappointed” by the forum’s decision, asserting that adding red to the labels would cost “hundreds of millions of dollars per year”. 

Such, of course, is the cost to the community – not to mention the personal distress to families – caused by FASD sufferers.

A counter lobbying effort came in the form of a full-page ad in The Sydney Morning Herald the day before the forum met, saying more than 3,700 community leaders and advocates and 150 organisations supported the revised labelling. These advocates included the AMA, RACP, Prof Fiona Stanley, Prof Liz Elliott and Dame Quentin Bryce. 

The Foundation for Education Research & Education’s CEO Caterina Giorgi said, “Collectively, we genuinely thank the Food Ministers for implementing a warning that will benefit the community and reduce FASD. 

“Having a red, black and white label is so important so the message can be understood by all Australians regardless of their literacy levels or cultural backgrounds.”

NOFASD’s Sophie Harrington said, “This new mandatory label will go a long way to improve community awareness of the risks of drinking alcohol throughout pregnancy and will result in fewer babies born with FASD in years to come.”