Alcohol Labelling (Pregnancy)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 2:48 pm on 7th January 2015.

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Photo of Bill Esterson Bill Esterson Labour, Sefton Central 2:48 pm, 7th January 2015

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to require establishment of a statutory scheme providing for clear and consistent labelling of alcoholic beverages as they relate to foetal health and safety and that of pregnant women;
and for connected purposes.

Seven thousand children a year are born in the UK damaged by alcohol. That is one in every 100 births. Mild brain damage can be caused to children by even small amounts of alcohol at the wrong time during pregnancy, especially in the early stages when an embryo does not have the protection of a bloodstream. Much scientific evidence suggests that there is no safe limit when it comes to drinking in pregnancy, but sadly, not everyone is aware of the dangers. The chief medical officer says:

“Women who are pregnant or trying to conceive should avoid alcohol altogether. However, if they do choose to drink, to minimise the risk to the baby, we recommend they should not drink more than one or two units once or twice a week and should not get drunk.”

She goes on to say:

“There is uncertainty about how much alcohol is safe to drink in pregnancy”.

The CMO also says that if a low level is consumed, there is no evidence of harm to an unborn baby. However, this view is not universally shared.

The National Organisation for Foetal Alcohol Syndrome UK tells us that there is no way to know for sure what impact drinking alcohol might have on an unborn baby. The same point is made by the British Pregnancy Advisory Service. According to NOFAS, a similar amount of alcohol might affect one baby but not another. We know that heavy drinking and binge drinking during pregnancy increase the risk of foetal alcohol syndrome, which is characterised by physical deformities, but there is a lack of consensus on the effects of smaller amounts of alcohol during pregnancy, as is shown by the apparent contradiction between that advice and the advice given by the chief medical officer.

The effects on a child can range from reduced intellectual ability and attention deficit disorder to heart problems and premature death. Many children experience serious behavioural and social difficulties that last a lifetime. In fact, what most of us take for granted is a lifelong struggle for them, and the damage that has been caused cannot be reversed. Not everyone whose mother drinks during pregnancy suffers damage that affects his or her life chances, and this is certainly not an attack on women, but the damage that is done by alcohol to too many children shows the need for action, and it shows that too many of us do not understand the potential risks of drinking alcohol at any point during pregnancy.

In 2007, Lord Mitchell introduced a private Member’s Bill which led to a voluntary system of labelling in the UK, but not all alcohol containers feature a warning, and there is also the vital question of how effective the labels are. The label that is used is only a few millimetres high, and is supposed to show a picture of a pregnant woman taking a drink with a line crossed through the picture to suggest that the woman should not be drinking alcohol. However, many people do not notice the symbol or realise what it is. The fact is that the labels in this country are inadequate, as well as not being universal. However, labels on containers are not the only way in which awareness needs to be increased. In Canada, four to 11-year-olds learn about the dangers of drinking alcohol during pregnancy, which ensures that awareness is ingrained in the minds of the new generation. Posters about foetal alcohol syndrome are displayed in railway stations, airports, surgeries and shops.

I am pleased to see that the Under-Secretary of State for Health, Jane Ellison, is present. During my Westminster Hall debate on 14 October, she referred to the review by the chief medical officer. That review appears to be taking a very long time to complete. I hope that the chief medical officer will listen to the British Society of Gastroenterology, which wants to see a decent-sized warning message in writing rather than just a symbol on labels.

The president-elect of the British Medical Association, Sir Al Aynsley Green, told me that he thought there should be a much fuller debate about the risks to children from drinking alcohol during pregnancy. He suggested that the Government should examine the evidence from Canada, where education and awareness of the risks are combined with support for children, families and professionals who are dealing with the effects of foetal alcohol spectrum disorders. In the United States and in Canada, labels on all containers of alcohol include the message “Women should not drink alcohol while pregnant or trying to conceive”. In the United Kingdom, symbols are more common than warning messages, and when a written warning is used, it is so small that, like the symbols, it is hard to read. However, improving labelling is only part of the answer. We also need to help the children who are damaged, and those who are trying to support them or live with them.

My Bill is about making sure that all the facts are available, and about avoiding confusing or conflicting advice, whether it comes from the Government or from other sources. The existing labels are inadequate, which is why I am calling for a mandatory system of labelling that is clear, cannot be easily missed, and gives the best advice. That advice must be for women not to drink at all while they are pregnant or trying to conceive. Such a system of labelling should be designed to reduce the number of children who are damaged at great cost to themselves and to society.

I invite those who say that my Bill will make no difference to meet some of the children who have been damaged because their mothers did not know of the dangers and continued to drink. I invite them to talk to carers, to teachers and to NHS staff who are trying to help the children who are struggling to deal with a world in which their brains do not function properly as a result of damage caused during pregnancy. I invite them to say what they would do to reduce the number of children who are damaged during pregnancy as a result of the drinking of alcohol. If improving labelling is not part of the answer, then what is?

To the drinks industry I say, “Consider the content of the labels now, look at what happens in Canada and the United States, and make the necessary changes without legislation.” Some children will continue to be born suffering permanent damage from the effects of alcohol consumed by their mothers during pregnancy, but evidence shows what is needed if we are to reduce the number of children who suffer in this way. So to the Government I say, “Update the guidance, and support my Bill.”

Question put and agreed to.


That Bill Esterson, Rosie Cooper, Tracey Crouch, Nia Griffith, Julie Hilling, Kelvin Hopkins, Barbara Keeley, Tim Loughton, Lisa Nandy, Jim Shannon, Sir Andrew Stunell and Dr Sarah Wollaston present the Bill.

Bill Esterson accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 6 March and to be printed (Bill 147).