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Mandatory pregnancy warning labels on alcoholic beverages

· Stefan Anjou,Regulation,Analysis

In July this year, the Australian and New Zealand Ministerial Forum on Food Regulation announced that from 31 July 2020 businesses would have three years to implement mandatory pregnancy warning labels on all alcoholic beverages. This marked an important achievement for advocates of health warning labels over the alcohol industry who had put up strong opposition and resistance to mandatory labelling for a number of years.

Prior to this announcement, health warning label requirements on alcohol products were self-regulated by the alcohol industry in Australia and New Zealand, with a voluntary pregnancy warning labelling scheme first introduced in 2011. The scheme provided recommended warning labels that businesses in the alcohol industry could choose to print on their packaging, with businesses able to choose the size, colour and location of the warning labels. In 2017, a Government sanctioned review found that only 48% of all alcoholic products had a pregnancy warning label, and criticisms grew louder about the effectiveness of the industry-led initiative. In late 2018, the Australian Department of Health agreed to implement mandatory pregnancy warning labels on all alcoholic beverages, but as is often the case with public health reform, the details of these changes were not locked in until July this year.

Pregnancy warning labels on alcoholic beverages are designed to discourage women from drinking alcohol while pregnant, as it has long been associated with negative health outcomes on the unborn fetus. Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) is the collective term given for the range of physical, cognitive, behavioural and neurodevelopmental disabilities that can occur as a result of the exposure to alcohol during pregnancy. There are currently no known treatments or cures for FASD, with the only proven prevention strategy being the avoidance of alcohol consumption during pregnancy. Australia’s national health guidelines have explicitly recommended women who are pregnant or who are planning a pregnancy avoid alcohol since 2009. Despite this, according to recent data, approximately 25% of Australian women and 20% of women from New Zealand consume alcohol whilst pregnant.

The impacts of FASD are widespread, as individuals can be left with lifelong issues including disability, learning impairments and behavioural problems. Health authorities have long pushed for the need to increase community awareness and education about FASD in order to help reduce the number of women consuming alcohol during pregnancy. The introduction of mandatory labelling is unquestionably a step forward in efforts to reduce the rates of alcohol consumption during pregnancy in Australia and New Zealand, however how effective it will be remains to be seen.

Food Standards Australia and New Zealand (FSANZ) conducted a review of available research and consultation in February 2020 to understand the type of label that should be used, and recommended a standardised label that is legible, prominently displayed, attracts attention and contains a meaningful graphic and text. This means that businesses will no longer have choice over the size or colour of the labels, and labels will have to be a certain size and in the pre-determined white, red and black colour scheme. For this to be mandated by government and to overcome strong industry opposition, albeit after a number of years, this points to a growing concern from public health experts as well as belief in the effectiveness of widespread labelling.

One thing is for sure is there is no silver bullet to this public health challenge and it requires a whole raft of education and awareness measures, initiatives and policies to ensure the population have information to make good decisions before they consume alcohol. The labelling requirements target the consumer at the point of sale and/or consumption, however, educating and awareness is required before this point, possibly alongside a broader shift in Australian societal norms about the role and acceptance of alcohol culture more generally

Stefan Anjou is a Policy Analyst at FPL Advisory.

FPL Advisory is a team of specialists resolving risks and creating opportunities with respect to government. We work with public sector and corporate clients to execute strategies for owning and managing change