Recent UK discussions raise questions about effective health messaging

Some of you may be following the news coverage on discussions about alcohol policy in the UK over the past couple of weeks.

Today I read about Nick Sheron, from the Royal College of Physicians, who spoke in Parliament last Thursday in favor of mandatory health messages on alcohol beverages. The article quoted him as cautioning against alcohol labels like “the ‘nasty, horrible’ images on tobacco packaging…We do not need to go that far. There should be a middle ground.”

It reminded me of the criticisms last spring of a campaign on alcohol and pregnancy in Treviso, Italy.  The campaign was titled “Mamma beve, Bimbo beve” (loosely translated as “When Mama drinks, baby drinks.”).

An article in The Telegraph commented on the “shock tactics” used by the campaign and stated: Critics said the initiative was in poor taste. The governor of the Veneto region, Luca Zaia, said it ran the risk of giving a “distorted image of women and in particular expecting mothers.” According to the article, over 60% of women in Italy drink in pregnancy.

The campaign web site is and info from the public health unit that organized the campaign can be found here.

The question of what type of messages to include on alcohol warning labels and to use in awareness campaigns is an interesting one. From an FASD prevention perspective, a “zero-tolerance” message along the lines of “No safe time, no safe amount” makes sense and is clearly backed up by the research literature. And we definitely want women to have the correct information available to them!

But strong wording, especially when accompanied by shocking images, might not always have the intended effect. For example, a woman who has a glass of wine before knowing she is pregnant may overreact when learning she is pregnant and is thinking back on her drinking patterns. Or, in a culture like Italy, where drinking during pregnancy is the norm, zero-tolerance messages might not resonate in the same way as a message along the lines of “The less you drink, the better.” And for women who drink heavily, for whatever reason, or who may have difficulties stopping their alcohol use, these types of messages may simply make them feel defensive and block out the content of the message.

You can read an interesting discussion of the Italian campaign and its parallels with smoking fetus ads from the 1980s called “Alcohol in pregnancy ads may leave target audience shaken, but not stirred” from Osocio, a blog on social marketing campaigns from around the world. The ad was designed by Fabrica which is known for the provocative campaigns it has done for Benetton. AOL also covered the Italian campaign last spring in an article called “Italians Put Fetus on the Rocks in Ad Campaign.”