While the government considers mandatory bottle warning labels about the risks of alcohol to unborn babies, the alcohol lobby is reacting in a similar way to tobacco marketers more than twenty years ago.

Food Standards Australia and New Zealand (FSANZ) has released a draft label for alcohol bottles, with a graphic showing a silhouette of a pregnant woman and the message, ‘‘Health warning: Any amount of alcohol can harm your baby’’.

Submissions to the FSANZ process closed on 4 October 2019.

Both governments advise women not to consume any alcohol during pregnancy: “Exposure of the foetus to alcohol can cause a range of physical, cognitive, behavioural and neurodevelopmental disabilities, collectively known as Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD).” 

Simply put, “FASD is preventable by avoiding alcohol consumption during pregnancy.”

Ministers at last year’s forum on food regulation noted that pregnancy warning labels on packaged alcoholic beverages “can raise awareness and prompt discussions about the risks of consuming alcohol during pregnancy. Warning labels may also support the establishment of cultural norms in relation to pregnant women not drinking alcohol”.

Widespread concerns have been expressed about the current DrinkWise label, which does not include a written warning and directs shoppers to a website funded by the alcohol industry.

However, Alcohol Beverages Australia chief Andrew Wilsmore said that while customers ‘‘have the right to know what they’re drinking and what’s in it’’ putting “too much information” on a warning label risked confusion... “You get this thing called label haze, where nothing gets taken in at all.’’

If the FSANZ recommendation is approved by Canberra all bottles of alcohol of 200ml or more will be labelled, with smaller bottles to carry only the silhouette image.

As crunch time approaches, the industry has been lobbying hard. Mr Wilsmore told The Sydney Morning Herald, “The great thing is, in the modern age, you can just do a, ‘Hey, Google,’ or, ‘Hey, Siri,’ and bring up a whole lot of information ... specific to you and your circumstances.’’

The suggestion was ridiculed by the Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education: “The key criteria for effective labelling is noticeability,’’ adding it wants the labelling to be larger than the FSANZ design, and for a full written warning to appear on all bottles with a volume of 100ml or more. It also urged a one-year compliance period, rather than two years.

A Deakin University study found that most of the focus group participants reported they had never noticed the warning labels on alcohol before.

The National Health and Medical Research Council recommends that women who are pregnant or trying to conceive do not drink any alcohol, which can impact on fertility and, if consumed during pregnancy, can cross the placenta and damage the brain and other organs of the embryo or foetus.