Health reforms lost in a sea of booze

We live in a culture where a middle-class mother likes her one glass of red a night, where sporting champions celebrate by showering each other with magnums of champagne and where indigenous women in remote places accept excessive drinking as a way of life.

We also live in a nation where our Parliament has imposed the toughest restrictions in the world on the sale of tobacco products because they pose an unacceptable public health risk. Yet there is no mandated labelling on alcohol products warning pregnant women of the dangers of drinking.

During the Punch and Judy show that passes for Federal Parliament, a significant report, arguably far more alarming in content than the discourse over Julia Gillard's not-so-brilliant career as a junior solicitor, was tabled on Thursday in the House of Representatives with cursory attention.

FASD: The Hidden Harm, is a report that goes to the heart of our inability as a nation to face up to the enormous personal damage and financial cost of boozing, in particular the damage done to unborn children by drinking mothers in all levels of society and income groups.

Foetal alcohol spectrum disorder is brain impairment with profound implications. FASD is the irreversible brain damage sustained when a mother drinks during the first trimester of pregnancy.

Indigenous communities are becoming increasingly aware - the hard way - of the extraordinary damage done by drinking mothers. It can result in abnormal facial features, growth delays, severe intellectual impairment, memory loss, high-risk behaviour and vision and hearing loss.

Evidence of FASD can be seen in the kids who skip school and, when they do attend, cannot be taught. It can also be seen in the unemployable young men and women who drift in and out of jail as serial offenders. Recently Fairfax Media reported that a study in the West Australian Kimberley revealed that 50 per cent of eight-year-olds are impaired by foetal alcohol spectrum disorders. It is a shocking statistic.

There is indisputable medical evidence that women should not drink while pregnant, but the message is not getting through because we refuse to make it a priority.

As Dr Sharman Stone, a former Howard government minister and prominent Liberal member of the parliamentary committee of inquiry that produced the report, bluntly put it: ''Foetal alcohol spectrum disorder is the single largest and most commonly misdiagnosed disability and permanent intellectual impairment in Australia.''

Yet FASD, as she and the committee conclude, attracts little funding or support for those who have the condition.

In terms of a public health issue, Canberra's response has been inexplicably dismal. Unlike Canada and the US, we lack both a national diagnostic test and funds to trial one. Women remain alarmingly ignorant. Even medical practitioners, according to the WA study referred to, prefer not to raise the disorder with pregnant women for fear of alarming them.

We allow the sale of cheap booze when the research indicates higher prices lead to less consumption.

The territory and Queensland governments would be well advised to read the findings of the FASD report before embarking on reforms that are not in the interests of women or children.

The committee has outlined a comprehensive range of measures to raise awareness, to mandate label warnings, to identify vulnerable women and test them during pregnancy, and to implement a national FASD diagnostic strategy. All governments would do well to take careful note of them.

This is just a starting point. The bigger, more alarming issue is why governments of all persuasions have been so slow to act, why Canberra has failed to follow the lead taken by other comparable countries.

Is it because alcohol is too embedded in our culture, too accepted as an integral part of our sense of celebration and who we are as a nation? It seems so. Nobody wants to spoil a good party.




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