Alcohol warnings to pregnant women

06:38, Mar 26 2012

A plan to target pregnant women in warning labels on alcohol products may have already encountered a setback, with Dominion Breweries (DB) confirming they won't be complying for at least two years - when the rule is likely to become mandatory.

Pregnant women are set to be at the heart of warning campaign on New Zealand and Australian alcohol products, to be phased in over the next two years.

The change comes after Australia and New Zealand's Legislative and Governance Forum on Food Regulation agreed to introduce labels warning of the risks.

About 30 per cent of pregnant women in New Zealand drink alcohol, according to Ministry of Health data.

The issue of compulsory health warnings, similar to those found on cigarette packets, has been debated by the Government and alcohol watchdogs since 2006.

A Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry spokeswoman said the new rule, decided on in December, would give alcohol makers in both countries two years to voluntarily put the warnings on their products, before the regulation authority moved to consider making the warnings compulsory.

Spokeswoman for DB, Jo Jalfon said DB would not put warnings on their products until it became compulsory.

"Breweries already promotes the responsible consumption of its products through packaging and advertising.

"The brewer won't be implementing warning labels for pregnant women until they become mandatory as there is no evidence to show they deter problem drinkers from consuming unhealthy quantities of alcohol."

Known risks to the health of unborn babies affected by alcohol include miscarriage, stillbirth, and the risk of being born with a range of lifelong defects such as foetal alcohol spectrum disorder.

But what is not known is how many medical practitioners are advising pregnant women that some alcohol in close moderation is OK during pregnancy.

Medical resources published by the Ministry of Health to advise doctors on what to tell patients say "there is no known safe amount of alcohol to consume at any stage of pregnancy."

At a Babies, Children and Alcohol Conference held in Wellington last week, medical professionals were told about 600 babies were born every year with foetal alcohol spectrum disorder - an irreversible form of brain damage that in its most extreme form can affect a child's physical characteristics.

However Health Ministry spokesman Kevin McCarthy said the Ministry did not hold data on how many children were born each year with alcohol related defects.

"The reason for this is that diagnosis is complex and only able to be undertaken by a small number of trained specialists. New Zealand is not alone here as most countries have similar issues with determining the extent of FASD in their communities, " he said.

Alcohol Advisory Council (ALAC) chief executive Gerard Vaughan said the warnings were a start, but did not go far enough.

"ALAC is in favour of mandatory rather than voluntary health warning labels and would like to see the messages developed as part of a scientific and evidence based process to ensure the messages are clear, consistent and unambiguous.

"To be effective health advisory labels need to be linked to the advice women receive from doctors, midwives and other health professionals."

ALAC applied to Food Standards Australia and New Zealand in 2006 for mandatory labelling of all alcohol products, but their application was put on hold after the Australian and New Zealand Ministerial Council on Food Regulation made a similar request in 2008.