Confusion over health advice as US style ban moves closer
Gaby Hinsliff, political editor
Sunday March 18, 2007
The plea for total abstinence follows growing fears over the rise among binge drinking among young women and concern that maternal drinking can cause possible brain damage in the womb. The new warnings are being fiercely resisted by the drinks industry on the grounds it contradicts the Department of Health's own official health advice to expectant mothers, which allows up to two units a day - the equivalent of a single glass of wine - once or twice a week.
The question of alcohol during pregnancy is hugely sensitive. In America there is a powerful 'total abstinence' lobby - the actress Rachel Weisz was pilloried recently for suggesting a glass of wine after the third month of pregnancy was 'fine'. 'I mean, in Europe they drink it,' she said.
But despite the confusing message from the Government, campaigners insist even the occasional glass can trigger so-called Foetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS), where babies are born brain damaged. Official advice is less strict and surveys suggest around two thirds of mothers-to-be drink at least occasionally.
Caroline Flint, the public health minister, has said that while cigarette-packet style warning labels for alcohol will be voluntary initially, if the drinks industry ignores them, the government will consider legislating. She has begun private consultations on suggested wording for a label, saying 'Know your limits', which gives the official recommended limits for men and women - three to four units and two to three units daily, respectively - then adds: 'Avoid alcohol if you are pregnant or trying to conceive.'
Drinking while trying for a baby is not thought to harm the child but to reduce the chances of conceiving. Official advice is that women anxious to get pregnant should also limit themselves to one or two units once or twice a week, where a unit is a shot of spirits, glass of wine or half-pint of beer.
A senior drinks industry source said the proposals were causing concern, adding: 'We are not convinced that there is the evidence to say this. Why have they decided to look at pregnancy - why is there no message on drink driving? You could argue the risks to society are greater from drink driving. There have been examples of people who have seen [the don't drink while pregnant message] in other countries and panicked, rushed down to the doctor and said "What have I done, have I damaged my baby?"'
There is no agreed "safe" limit for drinking during pregnancy as it would be impossible to do trials on unborn babies. The US already bans alcohol in pregnancy while France will introduce similar warnings on bottles this year.
Susan Fleisher of the National Organisation on Foetal Alcohol Syndrome, which has lobbied the Department of Health for a tougher line on alcohol during pregnancy, praised the new wording: 'Everyone was reluctant to say the that "one or two units once a twice a week" advice is wrong, so this is a gentle departure from that. We think it is a good bridging step. We don't want to cause scare stories, as pregnant women are alarmed when they find out the information about the syndrome halfway through their pregnancy.'
Fleisher said that the society now wants the official advice to mothers also changed to advocate a total drinking ban, eliminating confusion caused by different messages in different places: 'Everything's confusing - I mean, how much [alcohol] is in a unit? Because no one can prove what's safe, if you can avoid alcohol we recommend abstaining for nine months and if you can't, don't punish yourself but get some support. Pregnant women should look for other alternatives to relax them, like walking.'
She said warning labels would ensure the message reached everyone: 'Men have to be 100 per cent behind it too. Often men will say "come on honey, a drink won't hurt, one glass of champagne to celebrate..."'
It is unclear how many children suffer from foetal alcohol syndrome, as brain damage can be related to a number of disorders. But the World Health Organisation estimate one in 100 babies suffers mild effects, while one to three per 1000 have more severe retardation.
Given that over 60 per cent of mothers-to-be admit drinking occasionally, critics argue the link is far from proven. The Royal College of Midwives has said it does not tell women to give up alcohol and that while going dry is the safest option 'we don't feel there is anything wrong with having the odd drink'.
The Department of Health yesterday refused to comment until it publishes its proposals later in spring.
Source: Daily Dose 18 March 2007