Plea to 'treat booze like ciggies'

JOHN HARTEVELT AND DANYA LEVY
Last updated 05:00 13/07/2012

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The children's commissioner says an "explosion" in the number of children with signs of foetal alcohol syndrome terrifies him.

Russell Wills, a paediatrician, yesterday urged a health select committee inquiry into child abuse to look again at a minimum-price regime for alcohol sales and to treat alcohol "with the same seriousness" as cigarettes.

"The effect of foetal alcohol syndrome honestly terrifies me," Dr Wills said. "My outpatient work is largely with children with severe behaviour disorders, and like all of my colleagues, my experience is the number of children that I'm seeing with foetal alcohol effects has just exploded in the last five years, and all of us are seeing this."

The trend was frightening because even though early intervention could mitigate the effects of the syndrome, there was a "very substantial number of these kids" coming through the education system who would need a lot of help.

Whereas young people were actively discouraged from smoking, the same did not apply to alcohol.

"Alcohol causes enormous harm to children and it's my view that we're not treating alcohol with the same seriousness as we are cigarettes," Dr Wills said.

"The more that alcohol is advertised around children and young people, the more they believe that it's normal to drink alcohol from a young age."

Justice Ministry officials last week met alcohol industry leaders over a possible alcohol minimum pricing regime, and Labour has promised to put forward an amendment to the alcohol reform bill for one to be set up.

But Prime Minister John Key has criticised the idea and Labour MP Charles Chauvel does not appear to have enough support to pass his supplementary order paper for a scheme.

Dr Wills urged MPs on the health select committee to look again at minimum pricing. "It is very clear that minimum pricing has a part to play in reducing the accessibility for young people to alcohol ... Finding ways to reduce teenage girls' access to alcohol has got to be an enormous priority for all of us."

Among other submissions to the inquiry yesterday, Plunket told MPs that New Zealand had one of the lowest levels of public investment in children in the OECD – 28th out of 30 countries.

Chief executive Jenny Price said evidence showed that the first three years were critical in a child's development.

"Deprivation during this time has been shown to result in poor outcomes in adulthood."

Plunket wanted the Government to introduce a national child health database to record all healthcare received from birth, including GP visits, immunisations, specialist care and hospital admissions.

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The Every Child Counts coalition called for a cross-party commitment on children so policies could be sustained beyond the three-year parliamentary term.

Manager Deborah Morris-Travers said the Government was spending at least $8billion a year as a result of poor child outcomes.

The coalition also wanted a children's action plan to come from the Government's White Paper. Social Development Minister Paula Bennett is considering submissions to a Green Paper and is expected to publish a White Paper next month.

Social service network Jigsaw said more emphasis was needed on the important role of fathers in nurturing and protecting children.

Its chief executive of strategic relationships, Tau Huirama, said children had better health and social outcomes if their father was engaged and involved in the early years of their lives.

What Is Foetal Alcohol Syndrome?

A term used to describe a range of adverse effects on development of the brain and other organs when alcohol is drunk during pregnancy.

Foetal alcohol syndrome usually refers to cases where physical abnormalities are present; alcohol-related neurodevelopmental disorders are more difficult to diagnose as they are associated with behavioural disorders.

Symptoms can include: low birth weight small head circumference developmental delay organ dysfunction facial abnormalities, including smaller eye openings and flattened cheekbones epilepsy poor motor co-ordination poor socialisation skills lack of imagination or curiosity learning difficulties behavioural problems, including hyperactivity, inability to concentrate, social withdrawal, stubbornness, impulsiveness and anxiety.

At least one out of every 100 babies born in New Zealand is estimated to have foetal alcohol syndrome or alcohol-related neurodevelopmental disorder.

Source: Foetal Alcohol Network NZ and kidshealth.org

- The Dominion Post

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