June 5, 2020

Pregnancy warnings on alcohol just make sense

Pregnant couple hold hands on a beach

Have you ever noticed a pregnancy warning label on alcohol?

In Australia, including a pregnancy warning is voluntary, so not all alcohol containers have one. The warnings are also inconsistent - some are an image and others are text.1 The current voluntary labels are an initiative of an alcohol industry funded organisation called DrinkWise, and were introduced in 2011.1

Since then, Australia has been moving towards making pregnancy warning labels mandatory, so it’s worth understanding why this is an important decision.

As part of a suite of strategies, warning labels may help to spark conversations – for example, between someone who is pregnant or planning a pregnancy and their doctor.2

It may also help to increase community knowledge about the impact of alcohol, and shift social norms.2

Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) has done a lot of research on pregnancy warning labels, including a review of recent literature.

Warnings serve a purpose

We place warnings on all kinds of things such as food with nuts in it, tobacco and medication that causes drowsiness. These warnings share the same purpose, which is to:

  • provide information
  • influence behaviour
  • be a reminder
  • make the world safer.1

This means people have information to support them to make an educated choice (e.g. knowing tobacco causes cancer), they get a timely reminder about that information from the label (at purchase, and when consuming it), and it can helps work towards keeping people safer (e.g. someone might smoke less if they know the risks).

The Australian government advises that it is safest not to drink alcohol while pregnant or planning a pregnancy. To be effective in providing this information, however, labels need to have a few specific elements.

The point is to draw attention

People need to notice labels in order to receive the information. Several factors influence a person’s attention, including the:

  • size of the warning
  • location of the warning
  • colours of the warning (e.g. red and black)
  • use of signal words (e.g. ‘Warning’)
  • use of pictorials (drawings or other images).1

After attracting attention, the message on a well-constructed label should also be easily comprehended by the reader. For example, using a red and black colour scheme can help people easily understand that it is a warning.1

Industry pushback on mandatory warnings

The move towards mandatory pregnancy warnings is currently on hold in Australia, as FSANZ has been requested to review the draft label due to the ‘unreasonable cost burden on industry’, specifically the cost of ink colours and the addition of signal wording.

However, as the FSANZ literature review indicated, colours and signal wording are important elements of the warning being noticed and understood.1

Pushback against warning labels on some products from industry is not new or limited to Australia.

For instance, while warning labels on tobacco is now commonplace, it was a challenge for Australia to implement the policy because of pushback from the tobacco industry.3

Internationally, recent research from Canada on alcohol warning labels experienced pressure from the alcohol industry that forced the removal of warning labels about cancer risk from their trial.4 Although the labels trialled in the Canadian Northern Territories are different from the proposed pregnancy labels in Australia, the research still provides some insight into how well-designed labels can contribute to reducing harms.

FSANZ will complete its review on June 22 – hopefully a decision will be made to continue in the direction of mandatory warning labels as a step towards a safer Australia.

  1. Food Standards Australia New Zealand. Pregnancy warning labels on packaged alcohol: a review of recent literature. FSANZ; 2019.
  2. Thomas G, Cook J, Poole N, Gonneau G. The effectiveness of alcohol warning labels for reducing drinking in pregnancy: A brief review. CanFASD; 2016.
  3. Chapman S, Carter S. "Avoid health warnings on all tobacco products for just as long as we can": a history of Australian tobacco industry efforts to avoid, delay and dilute health warnings on cigarettes. Tobacco Control. 2003;12.
  4. Stockwell T, Solomon R, O'Brien P, Vallance K, Hobin E. Cancer Warning Labels on Alcohol Containers: A Consumer’s Right to Know, a Government’s Responsibility to Inform, and an Industry’s Power to Thwart. Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs. 2020;8(12):284-92.

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