Bill Esterson MP: We need to do more to safeguard unborn children from damaging effects of alcohol

Bill Esterson MP

At least one in a hundred children are damaged as a result of drinking during pregnancy. 

Even a small amount of alcohol at the wrong time can cause irreversible brain damage and there is no way of knowing whether damage will be caused or not. 

The conditions caused are known as Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders, of which some of the most severe and most obvious physical examples are categorised as Foetal Alcohol Syndrome. 

Many people simply do not know of the risks and my Alcohol Labelling (Pregnancy) Bill would make it compulsory for containers of alcohol to have a clear warning of the dangers. 

In the US, bottles and cans have a clear warning from the Surgeon General. In this country we have a voluntary system. Many suppliers have warnings but these warnings are so small that it is not obvious what they are supposed to say. 

Meanwhile, the Department of Health says that while women should not drink alcohol while pregnant, that if they drink, they should only have one or two drinks. This guidance can be interpreted to say that a few drinks are ok during pregnancy, while the international evidence says that there is no safe limit. 

There is confusion as a result of apparently conflicting advice but also from a lack of awareness. Some people believe that occasional binge drinking during pregnancy does no harm because they simply do not have the facts. 

The reality is that any drinking can cause harm during pregnancy and that message is not being heard by many people. 

My bill would contribute to an increase in awareness of the facts about the danger of drinking alcohol during pregnancy. The bill follows the attempt by Lord Mitchell to introduce a Private Members’ Bill of a similar nature during the last parliament. 

The bill would require all containers of alcohol to state that drinking alcohol during pregnancy can harm the baby and that women should avoid alcohol while pregnant or trying to conceive. 

The writing and any symbols on the labels should be big enough and bold enough to stand out so the warnings cannot be missed. 

Alongside an awareness campaign, proper, compulsory labelling can make a difference and reduce the number of children damaged by drinking during pregnancy. This has been the experience in the US and in Canada. 

Thousands of children are born each year in the UK with Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders. We may not be able to protect them all but we can do more and we should do more than we are at present.