It wasn’t the headline that raised eyebrows; it was the tiny text below it.
But the next text, in much smaller type, left some room for interpretation about whether alcohol is safe for pregnant women.
“It’s not known if alcohol is safe to drink when you are pregnant,” reads the poster, copies of which were distributed by DrinkWise, an Australian organization founded and funded by the alcohol industry.
Public health leaders called out the organization over the poster’s message, which they said was inaccurate and misleading and undermined the body of research showing that alcohol, no matter the amount, is dangerous for pregnant women to consume. DrinkWise withdrew 2,400 posters from hospitals and clinics, the Sydney Morning Herald reported, and changed the text into something less ambiguous.
“A very important choice you can make for the health of your baby is to abstain from alcohol while pregnant, planning a pregnancy or breast-feeding,” the poster now reads.
Simon Strahan, DrinkWise’s chief executive, said the organization fixed the language after receiving a complaint from the Australian Medical Association.
“DrinkWise is committed to communicating the importance of women abstaining from alcohol while pregnant, planning a pregnancy or breast-feeding,” he told the Sydney Morning Herald.
Public health organizations around the world, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Health and Medical Research Council in Australia, and the National Health Service in the United Kingdom, have all said that no amount of alcohol, whether it be wine, liquor or beer, is safe for pregnant women. Drinking can cause miscarriage, stillbirth and lifelong disabilities, according to the CDC.
Michael Thorn, chief executive of the Foundation of Alcohol Research and Education, or FARE, in the Australian capital city of Canberra, accused DrinkWise of engaging in a campaign “to stave off the threat of responsible and effective regulation.”
“The warning needs to be on all alcohol products and needs to be blunt and to the point — ‘Do not drink during pregnancy or if you’re thinking of becoming pregnant,' ” Thorn told the Morning Herald.
DrinkWise, founded in 2005, is an “independent, not-for-profit organization” that focuses on bringing about “a healthier and safer drinking culture in Australia,” according to its website.
But critics have long questioned the independence of an organization with a board that consists of representatives from beverage and hospitality industries. Six of its 13 board members are from alcohol companies and organizations, such as Lion Beer Australia, the Brewers' Association of Australia and New Zealand, the Winemakers' Federation of Australia, the Australian Liquor Stores Association, the Distilled Spirits Industry Council of Australia, and the Australian Hotels Association.
In 2017, the medical journal Drug and Alcohol Review accused DrinkWise of distorting and minimizing the role alcohol plays in causing cancer. For example, DrinkWise says, “Cancer risk associated with the consumption of alcohol is related to patterns of drinking, particularly heavy drinking over extended periods of time.” But the Drug and Alcohol Review described it as an obfuscation that falsely claims only heavy or frequent drinking leads to higher risks of cancer.
In the United States, a National Institutes of Health study that was supposed to assess whether moderate drinking — a single drink a day — has health benefits was halted after the New York Times revealed that the idea for the research was pitched to liquor company executives, who then agreed to fund it through a private foundation.
Some research has suggested such a benefit, but the conclusion remains controversial, and U.S. dietary guidelines recommend that people who do not drink alcohol should not start.
The study would have cost about $100 million and would stretch over 10 years. The Times reported that five large alcohol manufacturers — Anheuser-Busch InBev, Heineken, Diageo, Pernod Ricard and Carlsberg — paid for the study.
Joel Achenbach contributed to this report.