Introduction by Croakey: Food labelling is a contentious issue. Consumers and health advocates want labels to clearly reflect the contents, and the potential benefits and harms, of what is being sold. Historically, industry does not.
The battle was played out with smoking over the past five decades. Health warnings on cigarette packaging were first mandated in Australia in 1973, and have gradually become larger, more graphic and more explicit. Cigarette consumption has dropped dramatically since that time, with labelling part of the picture. The industry is still fighting, and losing, but where it has not won, it has always tried to delay.
Similar battles are taking place with alcohol. It has taken a long time, but regulators are finally responding to the undeniable evidence that alcohol causes significant harm while being, like other drugs, a source of pleasure for some. And the alcohol industry has used the same playbook as the tobacco industry – oppose every step when you can, seek delays when you can’t, complain it’s too hard, cry poor if necessary, push “personal responsibility”, talk about the value of the sector to the economy and, as is so common, as act human beings are servants of the economy, instead of the other way around.
The road towards warning pregnant women of the dangers of alcohol started last century. Here’s a timeline from FARE Australia.
Recently, Food Standards Australia and New Zealand (FSANZ) determined that all alcohol products should contain a mandatory warning to pregnant women that alcohol is harmful. Here’s the timeline.
February 17: FSANZ notifies Ministers responsible for food regulation (the Forum) of its decision to approve an amendment to the Australia New Zealand Food Standards Code (the Code) to require a pregnancy warning label on packaged alcoholic beverages sold in Australia and New Zealand.
February 27: Senator Richard Colbeck, chair of the ministerial forum, meets with representatives of alcohol producers Diageo and Lion, and industry bodies Brewers Association of Australia, Australian Grape and Wine, and Alcohol and Beverages Australia.
March 3: Senator Colbeck again meets Alcohol and Beverages Australia.
March 20: The Forum requests FSANZ review the amendment on the grounds that it places an unreasonable cost burden on industry.
By now, FSANZ should have responded to the ministers’ request to review their recommendations. Any day now, Senator Colbeck will announce the ministerial forum’s decision.
Below Louise Gray, CEO of NOFASD Australia, offers her perspective, and a link to an open letter in which FARE Australia is imploring ministers “to ensure that new alcohol product labels are effective in warning that alcohol can cause lifelong harm to unborn babies”.
Louise Gray writes:
Loving someone who expresses difficult emotions with violence is a life lived with sorrow, joy and hope.
Children and adults with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) are forced to climb a mountain every day, just to try to be able to interact with the world around them and do all they can to thrive.
Families and carers live in a constant state of hyper-vigilance; enjoying the best aspects of life, while waiting for the explosive physical outbursts – one effect of the brain damage their loved ones suffered before they were born, caused by alcohol use during pregnancy. It is a sorrowful reality that families and carers genuinely fear their loved ones, be they 4, 14 or 40.
With every obvious disaster our society cries out: “How can we prevent this ever happening again?” Well, the FASD community is speaking out again as two significant health policy activities unfold – a Senate Inquiry which is hearing evidence this week, coinciding with a process to mandate a health warning label on all alcohol products across Australia and New Zealand.
Through a mixture of tears, anguish, love and joy, many families and carers want to share publicly the very private pain and suffering that can go with FASD:
“Walk a mile in my shoes. Imagine what it’s like to have a child that you love, who you get up in the middle of the night, who at the age of 11 still has night terrors because of the damage to his brain, who can’t control what he does, who is aggressive.”
“They desperately want to be like everyone else but the reality is, despite no matter how hard they try – and my two work their absolute butts off to be as normal as possible – the mountain they have to climb to do that is almost insurmountable.”
“I wouldn’t suggest anyone live a life like this and that’s why we need to stop it from occurring, but the reward from these kids when you see how hard they battle and when they are successful, it’s just so great to see the pleasure and the reward and the satisfaction on their faces.”
For families and carers, the struggle and frustration of their daily lives is made worse by their frustration that one thing alone causes FASD – alcoholic beverages.
Any other product, food or drink available for sale in Australia that causes thousands of children to be born with permanent brain damage would be labelled with a warning. It is not fair that babies are born with FASD, “condemning child after child after child to a life of hell”, when the disorder can be prevented by effective health warning labels on alcohol containers.
Right now, the power to put a stop to FASD lies with a handful of ministers responsible for food standards across Australia and New Zealand. That is, if they can withstand the weight of resistance from the alcohol industry for a second time this year in deciding the technical details of the new mandatory label.
Community wants an effective label
The broader community (represented as 70 per cent of Australians) wants an effective label that is highly noticeable and easy to understand. Yet, the situation we currently have is an alcohol industry spreading mistruths, while trying to water down the words and colours that will make the mandated warning effective.
This is not something Australian families should be expected to compromise on, because the risk and harm caused by alcohol makes it unlike any other regulated drink product.
A clear and honest label is what families and carers in the FASD area are desperate to have introduced so that we don’t continue to play Russian roulette with children’s lives.
“FASD could be avoided by education and by advertising via labels on alcohol bottles so parents are at least aware of the risk they are taking.”
“It [an effective label] will have effects right across society, we’ll have better law and order, we’ll have fewer people in prisons, lower rates of domestic violence, it will just spin out into such a big impact in society if we can just conquer this problem – and the first step to conquering this problem is awareness – and that’s why the labelling matters.”
“It’s about getting the message out to the world that alcohol is a toxic substance and when it is used in the wrong place at the wrong time – it has devastating effects.”
The majority voice should hold weight in consideration of an effective health warning label over the alcohol companies whose products cause FASD, and who apply relentless opposition when it comes to voting on policy that justly puts children’s health above industry profit.
You can lend your voice to the list of organisations and individuals calling on Ministers to put the health of families and communities first and sign-off the effective health warning label developed by the experts in food safety.
Add your name to the growing number of people and organisations supporting this cause.
Louise Gray is CEO of NOFASD Australia, a family-focused organisation that links those with lived experience to researchers and clinicians, funded largely by the Australian Government Department of Health