Drinks firm backs alcohol advice during pregnancy

A major drinks company is bankrolling a health initiative warning expectant mothers against alcohol. Can we trust big business with our health?

Diageo is a large drinks firm which makes whisky, vodka and beer. They're also spending £4 million to train 10,000 midwives in England and Wales to advise on the dangers of alcohol during pregnancy.

The move is part of the Government's bid to bring the private sector into public health. They hope this initiative will help more than a million expectant mothers over three years.

'Midwives are one of the most trusted sources of information and advice for pregnant women,' says public health minister Anne Milton. 'This pledge is a great example of how business can work with NHS staff to provide women with valuable information.'

Why the concern? The government advises pregnant women to stop drinking alcohol. But Department of Health research shows that many still do.

The UK Infant Feeding Survey 2005 revealed that 34% of pregnant women gave up drinking, 61% drank less while 4% did not change their drinking pattern.

The training of midwives will be run by the National Organisation for Fetal Alcohol Syndrome UK. Susan Fleisher, from the charity, said the scheme would have huge benefits.

'The thing that's so fantastic is that they're helping us with prevention, we can actually prevent children being born with fetal alcohol brain damage,' she said.

This venture is part of the government's 'responsibility deal' on public health. The deal encourages voluntary pledges by industry designed to tackle big health issues like alcohol abuse and obesity.

But while 150 companies have signed up to the idea, many health groups – including Alcohol Concern and the British Medical Association – have rejected the scheme.

They argue that the pledges made by industry are not specific or measurable enough and that business is dictating health policy. Voluntary agreements with industry, they say, are not the best way to address health issues.

Conflict of interest

Professor Anna Gilmore, a public health expert from Bath University, sees a conflict of interest at the heart of this deal.

'These large corporations are legally obliged to maximise shareholder returns. They therefore have to oppose any policies that could reduce sales and profitability – in other words, the most effective policies.'

She believes the only way forward is law-change, as happened with cigarettes. 'There's no evidence that voluntary approaches work,' she says.

But health secretary Andrew Lansley says legislation takes time and money and working with industry is the quickest way to get results.

You Decide

  1. 'Not drinking alcohol when pregnant is just common sense.' Do you agree?
  2. 'Asking industry to look after public health is like asking mice to look after the cheese.' Are company profits and public health incompatible?

Activities

  1. You are to deliver a 60 second 'health' video for expectant mothers. What do you want to say? Aware that you need to grab the viewers attention as well as make your point, write your speech – and deliver it.
  2. 'Alcohol is now a socially-acceptable drug.' Write a piece for or against this proposition.

Some People Say...

“When will people stop telling me how to live my life?”

What do you think?

Q & A

Why doesn't the government fund health campaigns?
With budgets being squeezed in all government departments due to the recession, ministers have been forced to turn to private business to back big-money health schemes.
Is that the answer?
Most health groups don't think so. Professor Ian Gilmore, adviser and chair of Alcohol Health Alliance UK, says: 'To really make a difference, education and information must be backed-up by tougher action on the price, availability and marketing of alcohol.'
Is there evidence for that?
They point to the anti-smoking campaign where evidence reveals voluntary approaches to have been ineffective. But once legislation was introduced – from warnings on cigarette packets to bans on smoking in enclosed public places, along with raised tax on tobacco – the number of smokers fell sharply.

Word Watch

Midwives
Part of the health care profession, they offer support to women during pregnancy, labour and birth and in the weeks following the birth.
Private sector
The section of the economy run by private individuals or groups, usually for profit. Their business decisions are free from state control.
Fetal
A fetus is a developing mammal after the embryonic stage and before birth. In the West, the fetus is generally first seen by parents when the mother has her hospital scan at 16 weeks.
Voluntary approach
Industry choosing to cooperate with government aims instead of facing changes in the law. An example of this cooperation is when you see the words 'Drink responsibly' on alcohol adverts.

Subjects

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