Have you ever read the labels on food packages that tell you how much fat, carbohydrates, sodium and so on are contained in that particular product? Isn’t it amazing how much salt (sodium) you can find in things that don’t really need to be salted. After my bypass surgery I was told to severely restrict my salt intake and was startled to discover just how much salt was in everything from canned soup to sliced meats to tomato juice.
So I find those food labels very helpful when I shop. Now, has it ever occurred to our regulators that beverage alcohol could also be identified by its component parts. After all, we do know that alcohol is a neurotoxin that can seriously inhibit the cognitive functioning of full-grown adults. In other words, if you ingest enough of your favourite tipple you’ll get drunk. And those of us who are concerned about such things know that the presence of alcohol in a pregnant woman’s body can severely damage the brain development in a fetus.
Yet too many people appear to be oblivious of that fact. And some of the most ignorant happen to be professionals who should know better. So what can we do to increase the level of awareness among all populations in our society? My sense is that every beverage alcohol package should carry relevant information about the contents and have a warning that women planning a pregnancy or during pregnancy should not drink.
However, there seems to be a strong lobby by the beverage alcohol industry that has successfully opposed this sensible precaution ever since the idea of labeling has been proposed. How is it that we can label everything we eat that comes in a package for the edification of all, yet beer, wine and spirits have no useful information about their contents or the possible outcomes of their misuse?
Do the powers that be care more about hypertension and allergies than what maternal drinking in pregnancy can do to the brain cells of the fetus? That is certainly the impression I get. And yes, I’ve heard all those claims that red wine is really good for you (in moderation of course), but haven’t we accumulated enough convincing research data to know that maternal drinking in pregnancy can have a truly devastating effect on the brain development of the fetus. No sensible person would give alcohol to a baby, so why would we not warn of the danger of giving alcohol to the fetus.
I’ve heard the claims by people in the alcohol industry and by medical professionals that warning labels are not effective. But I have not seen the research that would support those claims. In fact, I have not seen truly effective warning labels in any jurisdiction for alcoholic products. Warning labels in themselves are not the complete answer to the scourge of FASD. But they can be an effective component in the overall effort to convince everyone that drinking in pregnancy is a dumb idea.
Communication professionals know that you cannot change people’s attitudes about any particular issue by focusing on one medium only. In our modern society we are assaulted by a surfeit of new information on a daily basis. Some of it is helpful in our lives and much is irrelevant. However, labeling in the context of a larger, overarching communication program about the risks of drinking in pregnancy could provide a solid anchor for this critical message.
So, would labeling by itself solve the FASD problem? No. Would those who are compulsive or addicted drinkers be deterred by labels? No. Would every purchaser of alcoholic products even notice warnings on packages? No — certainly not if those warnings are as badly presented as we find on US packaging.
However, should our federal government have the courage to require effective warning labels on alcoholic products we would have an official position on this important issue and we could build better communication programs throughout our society — starting in the schools. We have just seen the federal government ban BPA in products because they feel it is better to be safe than sorry. We don’t need to ban alcohol but we have the right to know what kinds of problems could arise from improper use. Our children will thank us.