Australia’s leading cause of preventable, non-genetic disability is not required to carry a warning: is that about to change?

Trish Hepworth

Food safety ministers are being urged to prioritise the health of families and the community when they meet on 17 July to vote on an effective pregnancy health warning for alcohol products.

Alcohol is the leading cause of preventable non-genetic developmental disability in Australia. Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) affects between 2-9% of babies born each year.

People with FASD experience some degree of challenges in their daily living, and need support with motor skills, physical health, learning, memory, attention, communication, emotional regulation, and social skills to reach their full potential. Without diagnosis and support, a person with FASD is at high risk of developing secondary disabilities such as mental health issues, alcohol and drug problems, disrupted school experiences and trouble maintaining regular employment. In a study of the children in the Banksia Hill Detention Centre, 36% of the children were found to have FASD.

Despite the harm, alcohol is not required to carry any form of warning alerting people to the dangers of alcohol during pregnancy. As a result, many people are unaware of the risks. 2020 YouGov Galaxy polling for the Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education (FARE) found that almost a quarter (23%) of people did not know that zero is the only safe amount of alcohol during pregnancy, and 30% did not know that alcohol causes FASD.

A clear and visible warning is needed to raise awareness and change behaviour. Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) has spent two years researching the best label design. In February it recommended the adoption of the following warning:

single alcohol label pic

The warning has several key elements. It contains a pictogram, signal words (health warning) and warning message; along with a red, white and black colour scheme. FSANZ concluded that the introduction of this label was the most cost effective measure to prevent FASD.

For years, the alcohol lobby, funded by large alcohol corporations, have campaigned for policymakers and Ministers to block an effective pregnancy health warning on alcohol products, citing cost arguments that have been shown to be incorrect.

Now that the decision has been made for warnings to be mandatory, these lobby groups are pushing for the label to be watered down. They have already scored wins, the replacement of ‘health warning’ with the more constrained ‘pregnancy warning’, and the extension of the transition time from two to three years.

Now they are actively lobbying to use ‘contrast colours’, a move which would mean that the warning is buried among other information of the alcohol product, making it invisible for practical purposes.

FSANZ was very clear on the necessity of the red, white and black colour scheme, concluding that the “best available scientific evidence:

  • supports prescribing colours to achieve a consistent high contrast label which is important for legibility and noticeability and therefore label efficacy
  • shows that mandating red colour is the only way to maintain consistency in consumer understanding of the label, as red is consistently rated as the colour with the greatest hazard connotation
  • shows that, if red was removed from the design, a significantly larger warning label than currently proposed would be required to maintain noticeability.”

The alcohol lobby must not win this battle at the expense of the next generation of children.

Adding this red, white and black label to alcohol products is a simple step we can take as a community to ensure everyone is aware of these risks when they begin planning their family.

PHAA has joined with 140 other organisations and over 1500 people to sign an open letter in support of the clear and visible pregnancy health warning. You can add your name and/or organisation at


staff-trish hepworth

Trish Hepworth is a PHAA member and works at the Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education to develop strategic policy and research directions. Trish is responsible for the Foundation’s policy analysis and development, advocacy, research and research translation. A public policy specialist with a legal background, Trish has worked across the not-for-profit, government and corporate sectors in five countries, and has consulted widely on strategic policy, government relations, research and analysis.

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