Sticking points over drink labels

By Nick Walsh

Health groups say some drink producers have been too slow to adopt voluntary labels warning of risks to pregnant women

Sian Hughes wants a broader message encouraging responsible drinking. Inset: A symbol of a pregnant woman appears on some wine bottles. Photo / Greg Bowker
Sian Hughes wants a broader message encouraging responsible drinking. Inset: A symbol of a pregnant woman appears on some wine bottles. Photo / Greg Bowker

Health warning labels are increasingly being applied to bottles of wine, beer and spirits to discourage pregnant women from drinking.

The labels are part of a voluntary system of warnings the liquor industry is introducing before its self-regulation efforts are reviewed in December.

In 2011, a transtasman food labelling review recommended the introduction of pregnancy health warning labels to alcohol products in New Zealand and Australia.

Alcohol manufacturers were given two years in which to voluntarily label products with pregnancy health warnings.

After the December review a decision about whether to develop regulation for the labels is expected in July 2014.

Some manufacturers have yet to introduce the labels and alcohol health groups have criticised the industry's efforts. Alcohol watchdog groups have called for mandatory labels designed by health professionals.

Rebecca Williams, director for Alcohol Healthwatch, said warning labels were just one of the avenues through which women should be educated about the risks associated with pregnancy.

Drink makers had a social obligation to label products and the alcohol industry's response to the voluntary labelling scheme was "next to useless", she said.

"A tiny symbol at the back of the bottle is not good enough," Ms Williams said.

"It needs to be readable, forthright and honest. We're not expecting the labels to change behaviour but they do raise awareness and offer the consumer an informed choice."

Drinking while pregnant has been associated with a number of birth defects commonly grouped under the umbrella term, fetal alcohol spectrum disorders.

Liz Read, external relations director for Lion Breweries, said that research showed health warning labels were an ineffective deterrent and "supply side controls" needed to be part of a broader agenda.

"It's about figuring out what is actually going to change behaviour. When the discussions about labelling first happened, the Government and health promotions agencies said they would also offer education initiatives and we have yet to see that. We do need a broader scale effort from public health agencies."

An Auckland mother says the move unfairly targets pregnant women.

Sian Hughes told the Weekend Herald she was offended by a label depicting the silhouette of a pregnant woman with a line through it located on the back of a bottle of Brancott Estate wine.

Ms Hughes said a broader message encouraging responsible drinking would be more appropriate.

"It's about consistency. Why not put a picture of a car with a line through it on the bottle?"

John Barker, general manager advocacy and trade for New Zealand Winegrowers, said the group was set to roll out a list of recommendations to the industry. Its suggestions would include the use of labels with either a pictogram or a short message as well as the integration of alcohol education website Cheers.

"Our recommendation as an organisation is that it's a good thing to have a warning on the label but we don't necessarily see it as an effective deterring mechanism.

"We wouldn't support a mandatory position on labelling because you have to weigh up the inconclusive evidence that labelling is an effective deterrent against the known factor of compliance costs," said Mr Barker.

After initially refusing to introduce pregnancy health warnings, DB brewery has announced that all of its products will soon carry the labels in line with parent company, Heineken.

Fabian Yukich, Villa Maria's executive director, said the company had yet to decide whether to introduce the labels to its products.

"We target our wine as something that should be consumed in moderation. We like to think our customers are at the responsible end of the spectrum."

Warning signs

2011: Review recommends pregnancy health warning labels for alcohol, giving industry two years to introduce voluntary system

2013: Voluntary labelling system gets reviewed in December

2014: Decision on whether to develop regulations for labelling in June

- NZ Herald

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