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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Sunday 12th June 2011

I hope they give midwives a long spoon.

News that Diageo, ‘the world’s leading premium drinks business’, is to sponsor training for midwives aimed at reducing the alcohol intake of pregnant women has met with a hostile reaction from a number of groups.

Incidentally, I can’t help wondering why Diageo’s description of itself, quoted above, excludes any reference to alcohol. Is it just that adding the word ‘alcoholic’ before ‘drinks’ might make the phrase less zippy or is the company anxious not to remind people of the association between ‘drink’ and ‘alcoholic’.

The plan is to train 10,000 midwives in a bid to reduce the incidence of Foetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS), the name given to a range of impairments that can have lifelong effects on the unborn child. The scheme is to be run by the National Organisation for Foetal Alcohol Syndrome UK (Nofas-UK) and Diageo is, apparently, doing no more than provide finance to enable Nofas-Uk’s existing training programme to be made more widely available.

That seems innocent enough yet Alcohol Concern, the BMA and the Royal College of Physicians are just three of the groups who have refused to co-operate with the scheme. Their concerns may, perhaps, be based on the alcohol industry’s track record when it comes to giving advice about its dangers. Though the UK’s Department of Health recommends that pregnant women consume no alcohol during pregnancy, the Drink Aware website, financed by the alcohol industry ‘to change the UK’s drinking habits for the better’, says that ‘In short, scientists are not sure about the precise impact of small amounts of alcohol on unborn babies’.

It’s this claim to want to reduce the harm caused by alcohol without acknowledging that harm which makes people suspicious of the motivations of Diageo when it comes to the Nofas-UK programme.

To an extent, of course, the drinks industry is right to say that alcohol doesn’t cause harm. As with all other plant based poisons, it takes the intervention of human beings to make a poison, harmful. You don’t deal with the huge damage alcohol does to society by trying to prevent its existence. You have to educate people to recognise the damage drink does both to health and to society.

As far as FAS is concerned, the question is whether midwives can, or should, be trained to deliver the anti-alcohol message pregnant women need to hear. Research conducted by the NHS in Tayside in 2009 found that midwives can be reluctant to deliver the alcohol abstinence message for fear of damaging their relationship with the pregnant woman making it difficult to offer further advice. The message about abstinence during pregnancy should come from society as a whole if it is really going to be effective.

The same research also found that the alcohol message was often restricted to the first meeting with a newly pregnant woman suggesting that it may be being delivered in the same way that GPs routinely tell people to stop smoking without actually engaging in any meaningful intervention.

It does seem that, by funding a programme that may have minimum effect Diageo is following the pattern of previous alcohol industry financing that has been aimed at appearing to be responsible without actually causing any serious upset to sales.

Education about the effects of alcohol on children should go far beyond FAS and look at the long-term detriment for children growing up in families where alcohol use, at least, diverts money from the child’s needs and, at worst, produces domestic turmoil and family breakdown. The message should be ‘Don’t drink’ rather than ‘Don’t drink during pregnancy’.

But that’s a programme the alcohol industry is unlikely to want to support. The only place to get funding for that sort of approach is direct from government and, given that government has endorsed this programme because it means it does not have to spend its own money, it is unlikely that funding for a proper programme of training on the effects of alcohol will be forthcoming in the foreseeable future.

Perhaps, it is the government that needs the long spoon.