Despite industry objections, alcohol and pregnancy warnings will be mandatory in Australia and New Zealand

The food regulator, Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) has finalised the form of the alcohol and pregnancy warning label that will be mandatory on packaged alcohol sold in both countries.

Assuming the States do not request a further review, the new warning will be added as an amendment to Standard 1.2.7 of the Food Standards Code and will become mandatory after a two year transition period (see pp 6, 78 here).

Here it is.

It’s been a long time coming

In 2011, the Australian and New Zealand Food Regulation Ministerial Council commissioned a review of food labelling law and policy, chaired by Neil Blewett AC.

The committee’s report, co-authored by Australian public health law pioneer Chris Reynolds, is a terrific document, although increasingly difficult to locate online.

The Committee saw no reason to exempt alcohol from labelling requirements, in view of evidence relating to the risks of binge drinking and longer-term over-consumption.

(In 2015, alcohol use was responsible for more than 6,300 deaths in Australia, or 4% of total deaths – see AIHW, Australian Burden of Disease Study 2015, Table D2, p 167)

Amongst many sensible recommendations, the report recommended that “generic alcohol warning messages should be placed on alcohol labels” as part of a broader, multifaceted, national campaign addressing alcohol-related harm [recommendation 24].

Secondly, it recommended that a mandatory warning about the risks of drinking while pregnant should be included on “containers of alcoholic beverages and at point of sale for unpackaged alcoholic beverages” [recommendation 25].

Thirdly, it recommended that alcoholic beverages should not be exempt from energy labelling requirements that apply to packaged food under Standard 1.2.8 of the Food Standards Code [recommendation 26].

The Government’s response to the review is here.

Added momentum for a warning label about the risks of drinking while pregnant came from a Parliamentary inquiry in 2012 into the Prevention, Diagnosis and Management of Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders.

The Foreword to this report, from the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Social Policy and Legal Affairs, states:

“FASD [fetal alcohol spectrum disorders] is an entirely preventable but incurable condition caused by a baby’s exposure to alcohol in the womb. The consequences are expressed along a spectrum of disabilities including: physical, cognitive, intellectual, learning, behavioural, social and executive functioning abnormalities and problems with communication, motor skills, attention and memory.”

The lifetime cost of for one person with FASD in the United States is at least UD$2 million (see FASD Strategic Action Plan 2018-2028, p 8).

The Standing Committee recommended that the Commonwealth implement – by 1 October 2013 – a mandatory warning label advising women not to drink when pregnant or planning a baby on packaging of all pregnancy test kits (Recommendation 7).

This recommendation has not been implemented.

The Committee also recommended implementation – by 1 January 2014 – of a warning label for all alcoholic beverages advising women not to drink while pregnant or planning pregnancy (Recommendation 11).

FSANZ has now finalized this warning – for packaged alcohol.  A warning about drinking while breastfeeding was outside the scope of this work.

It should have been a non-brainer

The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare reports that in 2016, around 35% of Australian women drank while pregnant.  One in four women who were unaware of their pregnancy continued to drink after they found out.

In this age of personal responsibility, alcohol and pregnancy warning labels ought to be a no-brainer, but it has taken until 31 January 2020 for Food Standards Australia New Zealand to approve a mandatory health warning and graphic for alcoholic beverages that contain more than 1.15% alcohol by volume.

For detail of the amendment to Standard 2.7.1, which governs labelling of alcoholic beverages, see here (pp 100-104).

The Australian and New Zealand Ministerial Forum on Food Regulation, which is responsible for developing food regulation policy, had earlier, in October 2018, requested FSANZ to consider options for mandatory alcohol and pregnancy warning labels.

Getting FSANZ involved was a good idea – long overdue.  FSANZ is a technical, a-political agency that reviews evidence, considers options and develops the mandatory technical standards that make up the Food Standards Code.

A methodical, evidence-based, bureaucratic process has significant advantages in areas of regulation prone to lobbying and interference from well-resourced industries.

The internet remembers

Draft (updated) National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) Guidelines clearly state:

“A To reduce the risk of harm to their unborn child, women who are pregnant or planning a pregnancy should not drink alcohol.

B For women who are breastfeeding, not drinking is safest for their baby.” (p 47)

In 2018, DrinkWise, a responsible drinking campaign largely funded by the alcohol industry, distributed a poster to hospitals and GP clinics around the country that said: “It’s not known if alcohol is safe to drink when you are pregnant”.

This was widely criticised; even the New York Times ran a story.

DrinkWise re-phrased its poster (see below).

DrinkWise now has a new campaign called “The internet remembers”.

Indeed.

Alcohol industry objections

The Approval Report for the new warning label lists the concerns raised by the alcohol industry, together with FSANZ’ response.  The warning FSANZ chose was: “Alcohol can cause lifelong harm to your baby” – which performed better in consumer testing than “Any amount of alcohol can harm your baby”.

For its part, the alcohol industry suggested that the text of the warning should be “It’s safest not to drink while pregnant” as “medical knowledge is not settled whether drinking small amounts [while pregnant] has a bad influence [on the foetus] (see p 44 here).

Industry was also concerned that the words “HEALTH WARNING” were “misleading, inflammatory and may alarm consumers” (p 26).  It recommended changing “HEALTH WARNING” to “DRINK RESPONSIBLY” (p 28).

FSANZ noted, unsurprisingly, that such a change would “not meet the intended purpose of the pregnancy warning label to reinforce public health advice and messaging not to drink alcohol while pregnant”.

Industry also objected to the red font required for “HEALTH WARNING”, on the basis that it would inflate costs.  It requested a monochromatic label (p 44).  It wanted the label to be smaller (p 29).  It felt the cost of the label was not proportionate to the benefit (pp 33-34).

Industry sought a longer phase-in period of up to 5 years, rather than the 2 years proposed by FSANZ (p 36).

Overall, while the alcohol industry was “fully supportive of interventions that are proportionate, well evidenced and shown to be effective at changing harmful consumption behaviours”, it was “concerned about the lack of rigour of the proposal in this regard” (p 43).

Its objections even extended to the ponytail in the graphic of the woman (p 24).

Overall, the impression you get is of an industry keen to reduce the consumer impact of the warning, keen to delay its implementation, and far more interested in revenue than the harm its products can cause the next generation.

No surprises there, unfortunately.

Smoke-free streets and lanes: a growing headache for big tobacco?

Smoke-free Melbourne?

One of Melbourne’s quintessential experiences is to stroll its laneways, many lined with restaurants.  Smoking here would spoil things for everyone.

In 2014, Causeway Lane, a small restaurant strip running between Bourke Street Mall and Little Collins Street, went smokefree.

You can read reactions to this smoke-free pilot here.

Three more laneways were added in 2015.

Victoria’s Local Government Act 1989 permits local governments, including the City of Melbourne, to make and enforce “local laws” (see ss 3E, 111) that relate to its functions or powers, provided they are not inconsistent with Victorian Acts or regulations.

The City of Melbourne’s Activities Local Law 2019, one of three local City laws, empowers Council to prescribe smoke-free (local) areas (see Part 3A). Click here for more information on City of Melbourne smoke-free places, and click here for a map of these places.

The City of Melbourne is currently reviewing community feedback about a proposal to make Bourke Street mall smoke-free.  See here, and here.

 

Smoke-free North Sydney

North Sydney Council has gone even further, voting in July 2019 to completely ban smoking in its CBD.

Community consultation showed 80% support in favour of the ban.

The traditional justification for second-hand smoke laws – in bars and restaurants, offices, trains and airplanes, is that smokers should not be permitted to harm the health of non-smokers.

With growing demand for fresh air, however, these laws have taken on a life of their own.

Area-wide smoking bans in public places are a logical follow-on from the decade-old smoking bans on Sydney beaches.

Manly beach went smoke-free in 2004, and all harbour and ocean beaches in Sydney’s northern beaches area are now smoke-free.

Bondi Beach also went smoke-free in 2004, and Waverley Council has since extended smoking bans to the Oxford Street Mall.

 

Conceptualising innovations in tobacco control

Second hand smoke controls reduce butt litter and harm to non-smokers, including asthmatics and others with lung and heart conditions.

It seems clear, however, that bans are expanding into areas where the risk of harm to non-smokers is substantially reduced.

It’s a process I call transformation: when the justification for existing legal controls changes over time as a result of norm change, facilitating further expansion.

These days, what functions do smoking bans serve?  Beyond causing harm to non-smokers, are they laws that relate to amenity – the desire of the majority not to have their enjoyment of public places spoiled by even transitory encounters with nasty tobacco smoke?

Or are they about reducing the potential for smoking to function as a socially communicable disease by reducing the visibility of nicotine-seeking behaviour?

Or are they about litter and protection of our waterways?  (I once saw a smoker put their butt in the bin.  Honest, cross my heart).

Or are they simply an exercise in “making tobacco use difficult” (to use Brawley’s term)?

Whatever the reasons, the nanny state theorists aren’t having a bar of it.

Residents’ demand for fresh air, and smokers’ recalcitrance on butt litter went down like “sick in a cup” with radio man Steve Price, who has blasted the ban as a “nanny state solution”.

Other ways in which tobacco controls can expand include through extension (where the purpose of the law remains the same, but the reach or intensity of legal controls becomes more extensive over time (as with prohibitions on tobacco advertising), and through creation (where law imposes distinctively new kinds of controls to help reduce initiation, encourage quitting, discourage relapse, and reduce exposure to second-hand smoke).

[a designated smoking area on Orchard Road, Singapore]

 

Smoke-free districts in asia

A similar trend towards smoke-free streets and precincts looks to be under way in parts of asia.

From 1 January 2019, the Orchard Road precinct in Singapore became a smoke-free zone.

Smoking has not been eliminated entirely along Singapore’s famous shopping strip.  But smokers are required to smoke in designated places, reducing litter, and further reducing non-smokers’ exposure to tobacco smoke in outdoor areas.

It’s a similar picture in Penang, Malaysia.  This wonderful world heritage city has gone smoke-free.

In the United States, Disney World and Disneyland are going smoke-free, and there are no designated smoking areas within these parks.

Not all tobacco control advocates are comfortable with the trend towards smoke-free public spaces.

Simon Chapman has argued that “banning smoking in wide-open public spaces goes beyond the evidence and is unethical”.

One interesting possibility is whether the failure to accommodate smokers’ nicotine addiction constitutes discrimination on the grounds of “disability” or “impairment” under NSW, Victorian and other anti-discrimination or equal opportunity statutes.

While opioid addiction has been considered a disability under the Disability Discrimination Act 1992 (Cth) [see commentary here], nicotine dependence has not yet been regarded as a “disability” or an “impairment” for the purposes of State anti-discrimination laws (see here, and here).

I’m not sure tobacco companies want all their addicted customers categorised as disabled, but you never know.

In the meantime, enjoy the fresh air!

[No smoking in George Town, Penang’s World Heritage site]

Interested in studying health law?  Click here and here for more information.

Why the media gets it wrong on obesity

“I’m not overweight”, writes columnist Katrina Grace Kelly in The Australian.  “I’m just the helpless pawn of a vicious corporate conspiracy”.

Amusing read, but it also illustrates why public health researchers are failing to cut-through with governments and the broader community on obesity.

“The ‘obesogenic environment’ is the culprit here, apparently”, Kelly writes, referring to a recently-released report from the Obesity Collective, and to recommendations from the Senate Select Committee into the Obesity Epidemic in Australia.

“The creators of the obesogenic environment are government, society in general and the harbingers of all evil – corporations, specifically, companies in the food and beverage sector, now being referred to as Big Food.”

She adds: “We are fortunate to have researchers on the public payroll, so they can conduct studies to arrive at such previously unimaginable conclusions”.

 

It’s all personal responsibility, stupid

Kelly’s beliefs about obesity illustrate why the problem is so hard to tackle at a population level.

The dominant framing of obesity as purely a matter of personal responsibility seems obvious, intuitive.  No one is force feeding us, right?

But it has a downside: if you’re fat, look in the mirror, you only have yourself to blame.

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, the proportion of adults who are overweight or obese has increased from 56% in 1995, to 67% in 2017-18, with an additional 900,000 adults becoming overweight in the 3 years since the previous survey in 2014-15.

There is a troubling trend here, but for many people, it’s difficult to accept that the causes of the trend might be different from the causes of an individual’s obesity.

 

Personal policy, and public policy

If you are obese, having greater personal responsibility is an excellent suggestion – it’s an excellent “personal policy”.

But it turns out to be a rather silly and unproductive explanation for the trend towards population weight gain.

For one thing, personal responsibility is not a new idea; in fact, it’s a strategic failure, so urging people to have more of it is unlikely to reduce obesity rates in future.

Viewing obesity in terms of the failure of personal responsibility also means that the dramatic trend towards weight gain over the past couple of generations – affecting many millions of people in most countries of the world – is best explained in terms of an unprecedented, mass deterioration in self-control.

Who could have guessed?!

Framing obesity in terms of individual responsibility probably does little to help those who are obese, although it might make the rest of us feel smug.  It also deflects attention from both the causes of, and the solutions to, the problem at a population level.  And that’s what healthy public policy needs to be directed towards.

Are you interested in health and medical law?  Sydney Law School offers a Master of Health Law, a Graduate Diploma in Health Law, and single unit enollment.  For more information, click here, or here.  For more information on what it’s like to study at the Law School, click here.

Update and summary guide to the WHO report: Advancing the right to health: the vital role of law

In September 2018 the World Health Organisation published an Update and Summary Guide to the report Advancing the Right to Health: the Vital Role of Law.

[See here for a previous post on the full report].

The summary Guide, like the full report, was a collaboration between the World Health Organisation, International Development Law Organisation, Sydney Law School, and the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law at Georgetown University, Washington DC.

The aim of the original report, published in January 2017, was to raise awareness about the role that the reform of public health law can play in advancing the right to health and creating the conditions in which people can live healthy lives.

The Update and Summary Guide keeps the same focus: providing an introduction to the role of law in health development, with links to the full report, while also drawing attention to topics that were beyond the scope of the original report, and to links between law and the health-related Sustainable Development Goals.

The Update and Summary Guide integrates new health data and refers to new developments, including a list of highly cost–effective legal measures for reducing risk factors for non-communicable diseases (“NCDs”), drawn from the updated Appendix 3 of the WHO Global Action Plan for Prevention and Control of NCDs. It also references selected new decisions, such as the unsuccessful claim by a tobacco company against Uruguay’s tobacco control laws, and the decision of the Constitutional Court of Colombia confirming the right to receive information about the health effects of sugary drinks.

Public health law in the USA: What can Australia learn?

SEMINAR ANNOUNCEMENT: 

Public Health Law and Health Leadership in the United States: What can Australia learn?

Thursday 19 July, 6.00-7.30pm, Sydney Law School

In 2016, life expectancy at birth in the United States fell for the second year in a row.  Since his inauguration in 2017, President Trump and his administration have taken a number of actions that arguably weaken America’s public health infrastructure.

At the same time, the Unites States remains one of the world’s great innovators. With 52 States and more than 89,000 local and city governments, the United States frequently functions as a social laboratory for social policies, and public health laws and practices. While constrained in some areas by its constitutional design, the United States remains a leader: its influence and innovations in public health law cannot be ignored.

What can Australia learn from recent American experience with public health law and regulation?  What are the good ideas?  What should be avoided?  How can Australian jurisdictions adapt the best American innovations and create an enabling legal and political environment for public health and wellbeing?

This seminar features presentations reviewing public health law and leadership in the United States, with particular reference to: communicable diseases and pandemic preparedness, non-communicable diseases, health care, injuries and global health leadership.

This seminar is co-hosted by the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, and Sydney Law School.

This event features a keynote presentation by Professor Lawrence Gostin, who is the Linda and Timothy O’Neill Professor of Global Health Law, Georgetown University Law School, Washington DC, and Faculty Director of the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law. Prof. Gostin is also the Director of the WHO Collaborating Center on National and Global Health Law.

For further information on this event, further speaker details, and to register for this event, click here.

Upcoming events: The Food Governance Showcase

Food-Governance-Hand-berries

On Friday the 3rd of November, Sydney Health Law is co-hosting the Food Governance Showcase at the University of Sydney’s Charles Perkins Centre.

The Showcase will present new research from University of Sydney researchers and affiliates, examining the role of law, regulation and policy in creating a healthy, equitable, and sustainable food system. The Showcase will feature presentations on a wide variety of topics, including food safety law in China, Australia’s Health Star Rating System, and taxes on unhealthy foods and micronutrients.

The Showcase will open with a panel event featuring three legal experts, who will speak on a specific area of law (including tax law, planning law and international trade law), and how it impacts on nutrition and diet-related health.

Later in the day, a speaker from NSW Health will discuss the Department’s new framework for healthy food and beverages in its health facilities.

Further information about the Showcase, including the program, is available here.

The event is free, but registration is essential.

Any questions about the Showcase can be directed to Belinda Reeve (the co-organiser): Belinda.reeve@sydney.edu.au

 

Announcement: Sydney Law School, QUT combine in hosting health law masterclass

Sydney Health Law, the focal point for health law teaching and research at Sydney Law School, and the Australian Centre for Health Law Research at QUT, are co-hosting a health law masterclass at Sydney Law School on Friday 6 October, 9.00am-4.00pm.

Click here for registration, and a preview of the program and of the presenters.

The masterclass will feature discussion of legal issues of interest to both practising health lawyers and practicing health professionals and will features academic staff from Sydney Health Law, the Australian Centre for Health Law Research, and distinguished legal and health practitioners.

Thematic areas to be covered include developments in professional liability, recent health law issues relating to children, reproduction and the beginning of life, consent to medical treatment, and end of life decision-making and legislation.

This event features a “controversies and hot topics” panel featuring all the presenters.

This event will be of particular interest to practising health lawyers who provide services to the health sector, health professionals with an interest in legal, bioethical and regulatory issues, executives and managers of health care organisations, and students.

Are you interested in studying health law?  Sydney Law School’s Graduate Diploma in Health Law, and Master of Health Law are open to both lawyers and non-lawyers.