Aussies to vote on whether Kiwi booze should come with pregnancy warnings

Whether alcoholic drinks in New Zealand will come with mandatory health warnings is in the hands of a group largely made up of Australians.

The 15 members of the Australia and New Zealand Ministerial Forum on Food Regulation will meet on Thursday to vote whether manufacturers will be forced to put warnings on their products that it's dangerous to drink while pregnant.

At present, the warnings are voluntary.

"We don't believe that status quo should continue - the coverage is really low," Alcohol Healthwatch director Nicki Jackson told The AM Show on Thursday.

"These standards are developed across Australia and New Zealand, and less than half of alcohol products in Australia contain any alcohol-pregnancy labels. It's a bit higher in New Zealand, but the products that our women prefer to drink - RTDs and wine - are not labelled."

New Zealand and Australia have a joint agency that oversees food standards. Of the group that will meet and vote on the mandatory warnings proposal, 14 are Australian. The lone Kiwi vote will come from Food Standards Minister Damien O'Connor, who is expected to vote in favour.

"We're hoping that our minister can get it over the line," said Dr Jackson. "Fingers crossed that it's a historic day today for New Zealand and Australian children... Western Australia look like they're going to go for it. We don't know [about the others]. We've got an understanding it's looking positive."

Hundreds of babies every year are born with foetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD) in New Zealand.

"They have life-long brain damage from the alcohol consumed during pregnancy. The ramifications are huge."

Nicki Jackson.
Nicki Jackson.

The Ministry of Health warns there is "no known safe level of alcohol consumption during pregnancy" and the effects of FASD are irreversible. A study in July found the effects can even be seen two generations down the line.

The NZ Nurses' Organisation (NZNO) and the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists have both expressed support for mandatory labelling.

"We think it's ridiculous to argue that warnings are unnecessary or that the tiny warnings currently on the back of less than half of all alcohol products are sufficient," said NZNO spokeswoman Kate Weston.

The alcohol industry is against mandatory labelling. When a University of Otago study earlier this year found labelling was "highly deficient", Alcohol Beverages Council executive director Nick Leggett said labels don't work.

"There is no credible research anywhere that shows that warning labels reduce harmful consumption of alcohol."

Despite saying they don't work, Mr Leggett also said there was already widespread labelling on drinks in New Zealand.

"What we need is further education, starting younger, in partnerships between Government, industry and the community."

Dr Jackson said labelling wouldn't be a "silver bullet", but part of a wider strategy aimed at changing New Zealand's drinking culture, so young women weren't considering drinking in the first place.

"We've got to change the wider culture to change drinking during pregnancy."


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