Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to rise to speak to the concurrence motion, the effect of which is to ask Health Canada to table with the House a comprehensive strategy to address fetal alcohol spectrum disorders. I very much support it and I will do as much as I can to ensure that other members in the House support the initiative. It is very important and it is time.
Let me talk very briefly about fetal alcohol spectrum disorders. Maternal consumption of alcohol during pregnancy is the leading known cause of mental retardation in Canada. As was indicated earlier, about one out of every 100 live births results in a birth defect. That means, and testimony has said, that up to 5,000 children each year will suffer from alcohol-related birth defects. It is very important that we understand the enormity of this and the attendant costs.
Here are a few of the secondary symptoms associated with FASD. Sixty per cent of these children will drop out of school or be suspended. Sixty per cent will get into trouble with the law. Fifty per cent will go to jail or be put in an institution. Fifty per cent will show inappropriate sexual behaviour. Thirty per cent will become abusers of drugs or alcohol. Eighty per cent will be unable to live independently in adult life. Eighty per cent will have problems with employment,
Binge drinking is the worst kind of risk to an unborn child. Binge drinking is more than four drinks on one occasion. It is not being an alcoholic. Binge drinking is something that probably everyone in their adult lives has encountered. It is like going to a wedding, or an anniversary or a picnic and over that occasion having four drinks.
Back in 1992 when a report was before Parliament, the then health minister and the Department of Health said that they had evidence that one drink alone could negatively affect the heart rate and respiration rate of the fetus. As well, the evidence has shown that days 15 to 22 during pregnancy is the most vulnerable period in fetal development. The health committee spent years studying reproductive technologies. It is well aware that up to day 14, research on embryos is permitted, but past day 14, even the medical profession says that the embryo cannot be touched. It is called the primitive streak. This is when all our basic features and organs get the trigger points where they start and are set for the rest of our lives.
Fetal alcohol syndrome, in its full blown manifestation, involves facial and cranial deformities. It means that during this period, when one's features are established, which is after day 14, very early in pregnancy when nobody knows they are pregnant, is when the damage is done in many cases.
The issue with regard to FASD is that if pregnancy is possible, one should abstain from alcohol. The reason for that is that 50% of pregnancies are unplanned. This is the message for women. If they are in their birthing years, if they are sexually active, if they are not using protection, they should abstain from alcohol; 100% abstention, not just a bit. The problem is the message that has gone out in the past is that one should limit or cut back. People have not been informed that even small amounts of consumption at the wrong period of time may have tragic consequences to the unborn child.
Over the last 10 or 11 years of my career as a member of Parliament, no issue has affected me more deeply and involved me more fully than the issue of fetal alcohol syndrome and fetal alcohol spectrum disorders.
In 1992 the Standing Committee on Health actually prepared a report called, “Fetal Alcohol Syndrome: The Preventable Tragedy”. The issue of whether Health Canada has been doing its job is relevant to what timeframe? Let me explain to the House what happened in 1992.
The subcommittee recommended requiring health warning labels on the containers of alcoholic beverages, just as the U.S. had introduced in 1989. It reported that the alcohol industry was opposed to health warning labels and every other witness was supportive of these labels. The brewers industry position was that awareness was very high, but labels were not effective and the funds would be better spent on targeted programs.
If we look at the transcripts and testimony of what we did in 1996, when the bill before the health committee and again this year, we find that the results and observations are precisely the same. The industry is on one side and the health people are on the other. Everybody is aware that there is risk associated with alcohol consumption and the money would be better spent on something else. The presumption is somehow that labels will operate in a vacuum. That is nonsense. We obviously do something now, but it is not enough because the impact on unborn children still is very high.
In 1992 the non-industry witnesses testified that warning labels should be part of an overall strategy to raise public awareness. We have heard that before. They also based their support on a public's right to know if the use of the product carried certain risks. Experts testified that information on product labels and the nature of the package could enhance the overall product offering and that the product label would play the role of salesmen and for advertising. The label on the product is the thing that is promoting at the point of sale.
Warning labels on the other hand would be a form of de-marketing. All of a sudden they would intrude upon that sacred space where the fun theme of beverage alcohol is being promoted. The product label is part of an extremely delicate balance of a product mix which is based on lifestyle and aspirations. Beverage alcohol advertising is all about that. In 2002, the last year reported, the beverage alcohol industry made a profit of $700 million. It spent $660 million promoting its products. Today Health Canada is spending $3.3 million on fetal alcohol syndrome.
Can we believe that $3.3 million a year has any hope in hell of competing against $660 million a year promoting the use of a product? We need to do better. The concluding statement of the subcommittee was as follows:
The design and presentation of a warning label is vitally important to its effectiveness. The Sub-Committee has examined several examples of warning labels on alcohol products from the United States. In all cases, the warnings were generally inconspicuous and difficult to read. It is essential that warning labels adopted for Canadian products not emulate the United States examples, but be carefully designed for maximum visibility and impact. We believe that warning labels, properly designed and printed, are an essential part of a comprehensive strategy for increased public awareness and education about the risks that maternal alcohol consumption poses for the foetus.
The report from 1992, the year before I became a member of Parliament, has stated the position that the House learned again in 1996 and again this year. Nothing has changed.
Let me deal with the issue of what a label might do. The program, Motherisk, is part of the Hospital for Sick Children. Let me quote from a paper about labelling from January 2004. It says:
It is interesting that the strongest opponents of alcohol warning labels are industries manufacturing alcoholic beverages. These industries first denied the existence of FAS...
In 1996 I was on CTV being interviewed with the head of the brewer's association and he denied the existence of FAS. However, if we look in its report to the committee in 2005, it says that it has been involved in FAS for decades. There is a contradiction there. The article from the Hospital for Sick Children confirms that. It says that the industry first denied the existence of FAS “and later did very little to prevent it”. It says:
The main reason for the industry to oppose warning labels is their fear of losing revenue. Their claim that they oppose the label because it is not an effective method of FAS prevention contradicts their lack of efforts tofind other effective means.
It is business.
I can remember when we discussed tobacco labelling. Everyone wondered if labels would be effective. What happened with tobacco labelling? Health Canada saw some action once the labels were put on. Once we put in the comprehensive strategy that linked the product to the strategy and the strategy to the product, suddenly the use of tobacco went down, particularly among the targeted groups.
In 2000, Health Canada commissioned Environics to do a study on labelling and fetal alcohol syndrome. It was an excellent report and can be found on Health Canada's website if anybody wants to see it. Environics basically concluded that there were about four or five target groups whose behaviour was out of line with the facts that we knew about fetal alcohol syndrome. Environics laid out a comprehensive strategy on how to communicate with these people.
Every target group involved one common element and that was public health information found in doctors offices, in hospitals and in clinics where people get their health needs dealt with. It makes sense. The rest of the program had to do with targeted television marketing, with magazines, with literature and other areas.
One of the things the report said, however, and it was concurred by experts, was that the beverage alcohol industry should not be part of it, that it has to be divorced from the activities, and that we did not need the beverage alcohol industry money. As a matter of fact, as was confirmed in testimony before committee, brewers spend $2 million a year on their partnerships and responsible use message when they spend over $300 million a year promoting their products. They do not mind doing certain things as long as they do work.
It is important that we understand that labelling and a comprehensive strategy go hand in hand.
Beverage alcohol is not just another beverage. It is not milk, juice or pop. It is a drug, but it does not say that on the product. How can we not have at least that first starting point indicating that it is a consumer product that can harm us if misused. Beverage alcohol is the only consumer product that could harm us if misused but does not warn us of that fact.
The public has a right to know and the industry has a duty and a responsibility to inform. That is why I am supportive of the motion to encourage Health Canada to get this comprehensive strategy in place. The Environics study back in 2000 showed that it already has the foundation for its strategy. We have all of the experience that Health Canada attained through its battle with the tobacco industry on tobacco labelling.
That was successful. It was an integrated strategy of putting the information on the package to caution, to inform and make the consumer aware. All of the other things that were happening, not just within the Government of Canada but also province by province and territory by territory, were complementing and working with this. Synergies were involved. No one item could ever be clearly demonstrated to have been effective because the only way to prove that something is effective is to hold everything else constant while at the same time one thing is being changed and then allow that to be in place for some reasonable period of time then do a study of it. Maybe five years later we will be able to make a determination. It is not possible to hold the world constant while one thing is changed.
It would be premature for members to somehow suggest that labelling does not work. I do not think anybody can prove that anything really works without having control over all the elements that affect behaviour.
I do not believe anybody really expects one item to change somebody's behaviour. However I do think they would expect that one item would at least contribute to information and awareness so that it could be linked to other things that happen.
That was 1992, some 13 years ago, and Health Canada is still studying it. It is important to continue to be aware. When Allan Rock was the health minister, he set up the national advisory committee on fetal alcohol syndrome and, because of all the work I had done on this, I was asked how it should be set up. I was sent a model which was the traditional model. Everyone had to be involved and experienced in fetal alcohol syndrome. We needed it to be gender and visible minority balanced and we needed to have someone from each province and territory. This is the precise model that the bureaucracy follows for any committee or advisory group that has ever been set up.
I remember working until about 3 a.m. responding to this suggestion. I said that we did not need people who knew all about fetal alcohol syndrome to preach to each other about how terrible it is. I said that we needed people who knew how to deliver results on programs, to design and develop programs and a comprehensive strategy on how to address this.
How do we reduce the incidence of alcohol related birth defects and all of the other attendant problems associated with misuse of alcohol because there are many more? We needed people who were in business, in marketing, in sociology and psychology. We were talking about trying to influence behaviour. It never did happen. There was a little bit of money given to the advisory committee but the advisory committee died for lack of funding. There was no commitment on behalf of Health Canada of the day.
I am very confident that the Minister of Health today is very committed to dealing with and addressing the issue of fetal alcohol syndrome and fetal alcohol spectrum of disorders.
I quote from the minister's speech February 7. He states:
I only truly understood the impact of Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder when I became the Attorney General, and I talked to judges and lawyers and advocates. One day the Chief Justice of British Columbia took me aside and said, “I want you to know that at least 30 to 40% - if not 50% - of the people that appear in the criminal courts every day are FAS-affected.
He went on to say:
--I do recognize that dealing with FAS labelling, which is what the Bill is about, isn't the panacea that some people might think it is.
He recognized that labelling in a vacuum would not get the intended results by itself. He went on to say:
But I believe that it is perhaps the first very public, very concrete step in beginning the debate that you've been engaged in for many, many years in the positions that you have.
And it is a debate that really hasn't as high a profile that I would like it to have. It is a debate that hasn't always made the front pages of the newspapers, as has the debate on smoking and cigarettes and tobacco control.
I know that sometimes some people say we are creating too many laws and too many regulations and too many conditions for living our lives, but I think it's important in the context of what's been happening on alcohol abuse that we do this - that we do take a steps to ensure that FAS labelling takes place in Canada.
I take the minister at his word that he wants to take some concrete steps with regard to addressing fetal alcohol syndrome and fetal alcohol spectrum of disorders and that he is committed to moving this comprehensive strategy forward.
Since we have had this strategy from Environics in the year 2000, I believe framework discussions have been going on and that intense discussions with the beverage alcohol industry on ingredient labelling and on allergen labelling have been going on for some time. Now is the time to table a comprehensive strategy and let us get on with reducing the percentage of alcohol related birth defects.