Working to reduce alcohol harm

Introduction of health labelling for alcohol products will increase awareness of the risks of alcohol consumption during pregnancy

Alcohol Action Ireland has highlighted the importance of not drinking alcohol during pregnancy to mark international Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASD) Awareness Day, September 9.

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Drinking alcohol during pregnancy carries a risk of Foetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS) and Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASD). Children born with FAS – the most rare, but most easily recognisable condition on the spectrum – have been exposed to high levels of alcohol throughout the pregnancy and can experience problems with their growth, facial defects, as well as life-long learning and behavioural problems.

FASD refers to the wide range of less obvious – but much more common – effects of drinking alcohol during pregnancy. Although children with FASD can look healthy and normal, they can have issues such as sight and hearing difficulties; problems paying attention and following simple directions, as well as other learning difficulties.

Catherine Keane, Head of Policy and Public Affairs at Alcohol Action Ireland, said it’s in a child’s best interests for its mother not to drink alcohol while pregnant due to the risk of damaging the physical and mental development of the unborn child.

“It’s a good idea to cut out alcohol if trying to conceive, but women who have been drinking alcohol before they know they are pregnant should not be overly worried. We do not have evidence of a significant risk from a small amount of alcohol in the early weeks of pregnancy, but it is recommended that you stop drinking for the duration of your pregnancy, ideally from when you start planning a pregnancy or once you know you are pregnant. The sooner you stop drinking alcohol the better it will be for your unborn child.”

Ms Keane said the exact amount of alcohol required to damage the unborn child is still subject to uncertainty, but there is no known safe level of alcohol consumption during pregnancy.

“What is most important to remember is that no quantity of alcohol has ever been proven to be safe to consume during pregnancy and no period of pregnancy has been shown to be immune to the effects of alcohol on the unborn child. There are no benefits for the unborn child from exposure to alcohol, just risks, and these risks increase in line with how much alcohol an expectant mother drinks. As there is no known safe level of alcohol during pregnancy, the safest thing to do is not drink at all, therefore ensuring the unborn child is completely protected from alcohol-related harm.”

Ms Keane welcomed the provision for the health labelling of alcohol products contained in the Public Health (Alcohol) Bill and said it is important that consumers make fully informed decisions about the products they purchase, especially those, such as alcohol, which can be harmful to health.

“One of the many positive measures in the Public Health (Alcohol) Bill is that labels on all alcohol products will have to carry warnings about the risks of alcohol consumption during pregnancy, as well as details about the alcohol and calorie content of the product. This is simple but important information that should be provided on all alcohol products, but rarely is,” said Ms Keane.

“Health labelling of alcohol products and the other measures in the legislation, such as the regulation of alcohol marketing, will help address the current situation, where alcohol is heavily promoted, widely available and sold as if it were just another ordinary, risk-free product, while the level of public awareness and understanding of many of the serious health problems associated with alcohol, such as FASD, remains quite low.”

As well as the implementation of the Public Health (Alcohol) Bill, Alcohol Action Ireland also recommends:

  • Implementation of policies and clinical protocols in all healthcare settings to prevent, assess and respond to issues arising in relation to pregnant women affected by alcohol use.
  • Ensure a clear and consistent message of ’no alcohol, no harm’ is delivered across all healthcare providers when it comes to alcohol and pregnancy.
  • Introduce a national FASD register and promote greater awareness among healthcare professionals of FASD so as to improve its diagnosis and management.
  • Provide support and services for families and children in Ireland coping with FASD.