Since the new pregnancy warning labels were recommended by Food Standards Australia and New Zealand (FSANZ) Big Alcohol has been lobbying against it aggressively. In the face of this lobbying onslaught can public health triumph or will policy makers succumb to industry pressure?
The effort to implement mandatory health warning labels on alcohol packaging has been around since the 1990s and yet results have not materialized. Evidence suggests this is mostly due to the strength of the alcohol lobby in Australia.
Fetal Alcohol Syndrome is one of the negative health consequences for a baby due to a mother’s alcohol consumption during pregnancy. It is an incurable condition transmitted during pregnancy when alcohol from the mother’s bloodstream reaches the developing fetus, causing life-long problems like heart defects, behavioral problems and intellectual disability.
With the growing awareness about this preventable lifelong condition and pressure from public health experts and community activists, some alcohol manufacturers have begun to implement voluntary pregnancy warnings from 2011. However, this seemed more an action to try and prevent government mandated labeling than a serious commitment to adapt to actual public health concerns. Since there was no uniformity in the voluntarily implemented pregnancy warning labels the efficacy of these labels has been low. According to Dr Nicki Jackson, chief executive of Alcohol Health Watch still today, a quarter of women consume alcohol in the first trimester of their pregnancy and as many as 3000 babies are born each year with fetal alcohol syndrome.
The pregnancy warning label and Big Alcohol lobbying
Movendi International has closely followed the unfolding of the campaign for mandatory alcohol labeling since the label was recommended by FSANZ in February, 2020. The recommended pregnancy warning was of a graphic with a pregnant woman consuming alcohol and the text: “HEALTH WARNING: Any amount of alcohol can harm your baby” on alcohol bottles and its packaging.
In April, food ministers asked the authority to review its decision-making giving in to Big Alcohol claims the new label would cost alcohol manufacturers too much.
FSANZ then pushed ahead with the recommendations, but accepted a wording change from “HEALTH WARNING” to “PREGNANCY WARNING”.
It also pushed ahead with the use of red on the label, but extended the transition period from two years to three, in recognition of the impacts of the Australian bushfires and coronavirus.
It has been found that Australia’s Food Minister, Richard Colbeck, met twice with alcohol industry lobbyists before the proposed mandatory pregnancy warning label was sent back for review. In fact Minister Colbeck was the Chair of The Australia and New Zealand Ministerial Forum on Food Regulation which rejected implementing the label using the industry argument that the label is “too costly”.
New Zealand’s Food Safety Minister Damien O’Connor supports the recommendations but is the only New Zealander with the power to vote to approve the label in the upcoming meeting on July 17, 2020 with Health ministers from Australian states and territories and New Zealand’s Food Safety Minister.
It seems so far the Big Alcohol lobby has been able to trap and influence key policy makers in the labeling decision to delay and sabotage this necessary public health policy measure.
I can’t help but think it is in part due to the profound and significant power of the alcohol lobby,” said Andre Becroft, New Zealand’s Children’s Commissioner, as per Stuff.Andre Becroft, Children’s Commissioner, New Zealand
Commissioner Becroft has strongly criticized what he calls decades of “chronic inaction” by governments and the wider community when it comes to the pregnancy warning labels. He had written to the ministers to persuade them to approve the recommendations, but the biggest challenges were New South Wales, Queensland and Victoria.
The decision due to be taken on July 17, will reveal how far reaching the tentacles of Big Alcohol go and how persevering policy makers are to protect public health by taking necessary policy measures in the face of Big Alcohol’s lobbying onslaught and interference.