Skip to content

Professor Carol Bower

Strong advocacy efforts have paid off with health and food safety ministers from around Australia and New Zealand finally approving the recommended version of a mandatory warning label designed to highlight the potential risks of alcohol during pregnancy. Thanks to the decision, distinctive red, black and white labels will soon become mandatory on all alcoholic beverages.

Telethon Kids Institute researchers were part of lobbying efforts across the country to ensure mandatory pregnancy warning labels on alcoholic beverages were not watered down.

Ministers agreed in October 2018 to consider mandatory labelling, however when the proposed label design –  developed after extensive review and consumer testing – was presented to the March meeting of the Australia and New Zealand Ministerial Forum on Food Regulation, some expressed concern that the colourful design would have devastating effects on the alcohol industry, particularly small producers.

The March meeting supported the idea of mandatory labelling in principle, but did not approve the proposed red, black and white design.

Consequently, Food Standards Australia and New Zealand (FSANZ) was asked to conduct a review of the wording and the colour of the proposed warning labels within three months. The recommendation remained for the red, black and white colours on the label – which were shown to be the most effective colours in communicating a warning – with the wording adjusted from ‘Health warning’ to ‘Pregnancy warning’.

The Forum met again in July and – following heavy lobbying from advocates for the labels, and the alcohol industry – approved the proposed label.

Leading Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) researcher Professor Carol Bower, who was instrumental in presenting evidence to support mandatory pregnancy warning labels, said public health stakeholders, including Telethon Kids, were delighted with the outcome.

The approved warning label

She said research showed strong labelling was an important part of a multi-faceted approach to raising awareness, changing social norms, and ultimately reducing the harmful and lasting impacts of prenatal alcohol use.

“We thank the Ministers for approving the recommended red, black and white label which will ensure a clear, consistent and noticeable warning label on alcohol products, and which research with consumers demonstrated to be the most effective features of a warning,” Professor Bower said.

“The other proposed label designs would have watered down the message, risking it getting lost. The approved label clearly shows alcohol can cause lifelong damage to your baby and the message is clear, both visually and wording-wise.”

Professor Bower said the powerful alcohol industry had lobbied ministers to reject the colour red being used on the label, arguing that it was too expensive to print. Other points of contention had been the size of the label and its wording.

“I don’t think they want the colour red because it indicates a warning, and that may affect sales,” Professor Bower said.

She said the simple fact of the matter was that alcohol was a teratogen – a substance known to cause birth defects.

“One reason women continue to drink during pregnancy is that they are unaware of, or underestimate, the severity of the risk,” she said. “Women have a right to know if a product can cause harm to their unborn child. We wouldn’t be permitted to sell thalidomide without a clear warning that it can cause severe birth defects when taken during pregnancy, so everyone deserves to know that alcohol can cause severe birth defects, too.

“We need to provide that warning in the best possible way, based on solid evidence.”

Professor Bower thanked all the Ministers who supported the red, black and white warning label, particularly singling out WA Minister for Health Roger Cook for his leadership and support.