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Health warnings for booze ‘too soft’

Voluntary health warnings on alcoholic drink bottles don’t go far enough, health experts say.


The alcohol industry-funded group DrinkWise on Tuesday launched a range of information labels for drinks, including messages such as ‘Kids and alcohol don’t mix’ and ‘It is safest not to drink while pregnant’.

The labels, to be introduced gradually as part of a voluntary scheme, were developed in collaboration with DrinkWise members who represent 80 per cent of alcohol sold in Australia.

Australian Medical Association (AMA) president Dr Steve Hambleton said the warnings needed to be clearer and tougher.

“The labels introduced voluntarily by the industry do not go far enough,” Dr Hambleton said on Tuesday.

“The alcohol industry must make a full and genuine commitment to reducing alcohol-related harms to teenagers and young people by ceasing the targeted marketing of alcohol to teenagers and sponsorship of sporting and youth cultural events.”

Professor Mike Daube of the Public Health Association told ABC radio the warnings were “soft”.

“The trouble is these are drinks industry friendly warnings, they are soft warnings, they don’t have any of the specific health information that does make a difference to people,” Prof Daube said.

DrinkWise Australia chairwoman Trish Worth conceded the organisation had considered strengthening the pregnancy message to something like ‘Don’t drink when pregnant’ but said the message was the same as that of the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC).

“We thought we couldn’t go any further than (that),” she said at the campaign’s official launch in Sydney.

“There will be no silver bullet, this won’t change overnight. It might take 10 years, but our aim is to see a healthier drinking culture in Australia.”

Ms Worth also defended the gradual introduction of the warnings, which includes phased implementations “over time”, depending on the manufacturer.

“Everyone’s jumped on board on the same date, some things take longer to roll out,” Ms Worth said, adding a beer label will have a faster turnover than a wine bottle label.

The small size of the health warnings – which take up just a fraction of each bottle – have also been queried, but Professor Alec Welsh, of the Royal Australia and New Zealand College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists said the size didn’t matter.

“I think there’s an enormous jump in awareness between no label and having a label and putting it on the bottle is very significant,” he said at the launch.

Prof Welsh said the campaign was about preventing “complacency” among those who believe it is acceptable to have a couple of drinks during pregnancy.

“Even five or 10 years ago it was quite easy to be glib and relaxed and say a drink or two during pregnancy is alright,” he said.

“The message has changed. If you want to be as safe as you possibly can, don’t drink at all.”

Professor Ian Hickie, of the Brain and Mind Research Institute at the University of Sydney, said the last 10 years had seen “profound” research on the effects of drinking on the development of teenage brains.

“We all understand the importance of not giving alcohol to young children, but we tend to see physically mature teenagers and assume their brain is also mature when it’s clearly not,” he said.

“Our teenagers think they’re bulletproof.

“We in Australia celebrate schoolies week, we celebrate every major event through high school and the end of high school and early post-school periods with major drinking festivals.

“So we have issues in Australia.”

The campaign would hopefully challenge the idea that it is fine to introduce teenagers to alcohol, he said.


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