What are the unintended consequences of alcohol and pregnancy warning labels?


Alcohol warning labels have been used by a number of provinces, states, and countries as a way of trying to prevent FASD by encouraging women to abstain from alcohol consumption during pregnancy.

While popular with the general public and widely promoted by many groups and organizations, their use remains controversial as there is limited evidence for their effectiveness. A scoping review published last year (Thomas et al, 2014) concluded that alcohol warning messages have the most influence on low-risk drinkers and have not been shown to change the drinking behavior of those who drink heavily or binge during pregnancy.

In a recent article published in The American Journal of Bioethics, Emily Bell, Natalie Zizzo & Eric Racine (2015) discuss ethical concerns stemming from the questionable effectiveness of alcohol and pregnancy warning labels:

There are good reasons to question the use of alcohol labels and the narrow messages they convey as methods of primary prevention for FASD. They risk perpetuating restrictive and unsupportive policies toward pregnant women with alcohol abuse issues. They may create fear and anxiety among women who drink before realizing they are pregnant, and they fail to support a comprehensive picture of FASD prevention (i.e., no information resources, no focus on the family’s, partner’s, or society’s roles). (p.19)

They comment on how the promotion of alcohol and pregnancy warning labels may be related to a belief that “doing something is better than doing nothing.” And, while it could be argued that alcohol warning labels support longer term changes in the acceptability of drinking patterns among women and the public, research has failed to demonstrate measurable changes in drinking since they were introduced.


For more on warning labels, see earlier posts:


Bell, E., Zizzo, N. and Racine, E. (2015) Caution! Warning Labels About Alcohol and Pregnancy: Unintended Consequences and Questionable Effectiveness. The American Journal of Bioethics, 15:3, 18-20, DOI:10.1080/15265161.2014.998376

Thomas, G., Gonneau, G., Poole, N., and Cook, J. (2014). The effectiveness of alcohol warning labels in the prevention of Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder: A brief review. International Journal of Alcohol and Drug Research, 3(1):91-103. doi: 10.7895/ijadr.v3i1.[Open Access]