BMJ news article explores the differing priorities of non-profits, government and industry

Last week I blogged on news reports that Diageo, the alcohol company that produces Guinness and Smirnoff, has agreed to pay for the training of 10,000 midwives in the United Kingdom to help reduce alcohol use in pregnant women (see the post here).

The initiative has received criticisms as many question the involvement of the alcohol industry in public health. Can educational messages about alcohol from programs funded by industry really be free of bias? What about which programs industry decides to fund? Is it really random?

A news article published in the British Medical Journal raises some different concerns (Women told that they must abstain from alcohol in pregnancy, in campaign financed by drinks industry, June 17, 2011, Helen Mooney).

The training program for midwives is being conducted by the UK National Organisation on Foetal Alcohol Syndrome (NOFAS), a non-profit organization dedicated to “eliminating birth defects caused by alcohol consumption during pregnancy.” Mooney comments in the BMJ article:

The advice given by the NOFAS differs from the Department of Health’s. The organisation advises women to abstain entirely from alcohol during pregnancy and while trying to conceive, whereas the Department of Health says that, although women should avoid alcohol during pregnancy, “if they do choose to drink, to minimise the risk to the baby, they should not drink more than 1 or 2 units of alcohol once or twice a week and should not get drunk.”

Key messages in the training include: “Nil Alcohol in Pregnancy,” “Take No Risk,” and “Prevent Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder.”

Previous posts on this blog have discussed how messages about alcohol use during pregnancy are shaped by things like rates of alcohol consumption in a particular region (see, for example, Are shock tactics effective?),  the use of the precautionary principle when faced with a lack of clear research evidence (see, for example, Study Stirs Up Public Uncertainty and Media Discussion), and debates about whether beer and wine should really be considered alcohol (see, for example, FASD Prevention in France).

This article suggests to me that the more parties that are involved with FASD prevention education, the more ambiguous messages will sometimes become. There’s a clear need for messages that are based on research evidence and not on what women want to hear or what special interest groups would prefer to portray or what’s fashionable and hip.

And as Professor Ian Gilmore (former president of the Royal College of Physicians and chair of Alcohol Health Alliance UK) comments in the BMJ news article: “Information needs to be supported by also tackling drinks pricing and marketing; public education like this can be very weak unless it is combined with other drivers and publicity.” All the research to-date suggests that awareness campaigns just increase awareness – they have minimal effect on behaviour (which is exactly why industry loves to support them!).

Reference:

Mooney, H. (2011). News: Women told that they must abstain from alcohol in pregnancy, in campaign financed by drinks industry BMJ 2011; 342:d3762