moved that Bill C-251, An Act to amend the Food and Drugs Act (warning labels regarding the consumption of alcohol), be read the second time and referred to a committee.
Mr. Speaker, I would like to begin by thanking Ms. Elspeth Ross who is with the FAS Network at the Children's Hospital of Eastern Ontario. I cannot say enough about the work that she has done in support of families and children with fetal alcohol spectrum disorders and helped parliamentarians to understand the devastation that alcohol has caused.
Alcohol is the most widely used and abused drug in the world, but in Canada beverage alcohol is the only consumer product that can harm us if misused and one that does not warn us of that fact.
Existing legislation does not adequately recognize alcohol as a drug or indeed as a product that is clearly associated with significant risk to public health and safety. It plays a role in thousands of premature deaths, preventable injuries, and prenatal brain damage each year. It is associated with increased cirrhosis of the liver, cancer, cardiovascular diseases, respiratory diseases, homicides, suicides, as well as motor vehicle, boat and snowmobile crashes, falls, fires and drownings.
Moreover, high rates of consumption are associated with increased mental illness, an increase in crime and reduced work or productivity. These translate into a human loss of devastating proportions and an economic toll of billions of dollars.
The active ingredient in alcohol is ethyl alcohol, commonly known as ethanol, which works much like ether. Acting like an anesthetic it puts the brain to sleep. It also acts as a central nervous system depressant that slows body functions down such as heart rate and respiration.
Small quantities of alcohol may induce feelings of well-being and relaxation, but in larger amounts alcohol can cause intoxication, sedation, unconsciousness, brain damage, physical or mental illness and even death.
Fetal alcohol spectrum disorders or FASD is a term which describes a range of effects that can occur in a person whose mother drank alcohol while pregnant. These effects can include physical and mental disabilities and problems with behaviour and learning, and often a person has a mix of these problems.
Persons with FASD often have problems with learning, memory, attention span, problem solving, speech and hearing, and they are at very high risk for trouble in school, trouble with the law, alcohol and drug abuse and mental health disorders. FASDs include fetal alcohol syndrome, which causes growth problems, abnormal facial features and central nervous system problems.
Children who do not have all the symptoms of FAS can have another form of FASD and these children can have problems just as severe as those children who have FASD. There is no known amount of alcohol use that is safe during pregnancy and there is no known time during pregnancy when alcohol is safe to use.
FAS is often described as the leading known cause of mental retardation. While it is true that it is more prevalent than Down's syndrome or spinal bifida, it is not the cause. The simple fact that the consumption of alcohol during pregnancy is the one and only cause, FAS is 100% preventable by abstaining from the consumption of alcohol during pregnancy.
It must become the cultural norm that drinking during pregnancy is inappropriate, but since 50% of pregnancies are unplanned and the highest risk period to the fetus is between days 15 and 22 of pregnancy, when a woman does not even know she is pregnant, the fact is that if a woman is in her birthing years, if she is sexually active and not using protection, she should abstain from consuming any alcohol to totally eliminate the risk of harming her children.
Bill C-251 was inspired by a report from the health committee back in June 1992. It was entitled “Foetal Alcohol Syndrome: A Preventable Tragedy” in which it recommended warning labels on the containers of all beverage alcohol to alert consumers that consumption during pregnancy can hurt the fetus.
The House will note that the bill is only one clause long which deliberately leaves the details of the labelling requirement to be prescribed by governor in council. That means that the precise wording, form and size of the label together with other details necessary to enact the bill will be provided in the regulations of the bill. That was recommended to me by Health Canada officials on order to provide as much flexibility and latitude to respond to industry concerns and suggestions.
I know that health officials have been dialoguing with various stakeholders and I very much hope that the industries affected will agree to work collaboratively with Health Canada, and become part of a national harm reduction strategy related to alcohol.
This past summer there was a conference of experts in Regina. The headline of the release stated that: “Doctors, judges, lawyers agree more needs to be done about fetal alcohol exposure”. There is one quote that caught my attention and it was from Dr. Gideon Koren, a professor and director of the Motherisk Program, at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto. He said, “There's no way we are doing the right things--we are not...Compared to some other maladies, from heart and stroke to cancer, there is no big societal drive to do something”.
That is an assessment of an eminent medical professional who, prior to this, had been supporting the beverage alcohol industry position with regard to labelling. He has changed his mind. What we are doing is the wrong thing. He also said, “Health Canada estimates that about one per cent, or 300,000 Canadians, suffer from some form of this disorder...That's one child in every 100 births, or about 4,000 new cases, occur each year and the costs are huge”.
Since I last spoke about this bill last May, I told the committee at the time that there were 20 countries which already had health warning labels on containers of alcoholic beverages. Let me remind the House they include: Armenia, Iceland, Portugal, Spain, India, Japan, Republic of Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, Mexico, United States, Cost Rica, Guatemala, Honduras, Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Venezuela and Zimbabwe.
There have been changes since then and I want to let the House know, but first let me go through a few press clippings that I picked out. On September 4, 2007, not so long ago, South Africa announced that it has new regulations requiring containers of alcoholic beverages to display messages highlighting the negative effects of alcohol consumption. The department said that the regulations would come into effect in the next 18 months as part of an ongoing campaign to promote healthy lifestyles.
In Ireland, on October 14, 2007, not so long ago, mandatory labelling of alcohol containers with health warning labels about the dangers of drinking alcohol during pregnancy will be introduced. Members should note that Drinks Manufacturers Ireland, DMI, the umbrella body for the alcohol industry, confirmed yesterday that it had agreed to the health warning which will apply to all alcohol containers sold in the republic. The message will carry an image of a pregnant woman with a diagonal red line or written warning on it.
Let us look at August 14, the European Union is calling for the dangers of alcohol such as drinking while pregnant and driving to be highlighted on bottles and labels of bottles and cans.
Let us look at Tasmania, July 2, 2007. Tasmanian child commissioner, Paul Mason, said, “Women of childbearing age should not drink alcohol in the case they fall pregnant”. He is pushing for labels on alcohol containers to warn women of the risks associated with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder which affects about 5,800 Tasmanians. He went on to say: “there is no safe level of drinking alcohol during pregnancy”.
How about New Zealand? For the last two years it has considered and now has the recommendation from the health committee which makes the following recommendations including: first, that it develop legislation or standards to require mandatory labels to be placed on all types of alcohol liquor reminding women of the dangers of drinking alcohol during pregnancy; second, that it publicize the adverse health consequences of drinking during pregnancy including community education about fetal alcohol spectrum disorder; third, that it increase monitoring of, and research into, fetal alcohol spectrum disorder and that effective intervention demonstrated by this research be applied immediately; and finally, that it adopt a policy encouraging women not to drink at any time during pregnancy.
How about Australia? On June 17, also since the last time I spoke in this place on this bill, says that all alcohol products will carry warning labels of the links between binge drinking and brain damage if the new safety push succeeds. This is from the alcohol education rehabilitation foundation who said that, “We have an epidemic of intoxication in Australia. We don't drink more in total than we did 10 years ago, but the way we drink has changed”. It is talking about binge drinking. It went on to say, “While it's not the complete answer, it should be one of the ways we get the community to understand that alcohol is not a benign product”.
Further, in Australia, it is estimated 50% of individuals with FASD will end up in institutional care, a mental health facility or in prison. It has been estimated that Australia spends more than $13 million a day on FASD-affected individuals through health care, institutional care, mental health, in justice services and other areas. Acting now would not only reduce these costs but improve the lives of children, families and communities.
Finally, let us look at the UK. The UK has just, under Tony Blair, adopted a national alcohol harm reduction strategy. In the executive summary it says:
The Strategy Unit’s interim analysis estimated that alcohol misuse is now costing around [$40 billion Canadian per year.]...The annual cost of alcohol misuse includes: 1.2 million violent incidents (around half of all violent crimes); 360,000 incidents of domestic violence (around a third) which are linked to alcohol misuse; increased anti social behaviour and fear of crime--61% of the population perceive alcohol-related violence as worsening; expenditure of [$200 million Canadian] on specialist alcohol treatment; over 30,000 hospital admissions for alcohol dependence syndrome; up to 22,000 premature deaths per annum; at peak times, up to 70% of all admissions to accident and emergency departments; up to 1,000 suicides; up to 17 million working days lost through alcohol-related absence; between 780,000 and 1.3 million children affected by parental alcohol problems; and increased divorce--marriages where there are alcohol problems are twice as likely to end in divorce.
That is pretty compelling. The UK is working on a voluntary compliance, just like in Canada.
Let me go on to the stats. When I gave the stats the last time, 67% of Canadians supported health warning labels, in a survey commissioned by Decima and Health Canada.
We have a new one now. It is an Environics survey done for Public Health Agency of Canada, published in May 2006, just after I gave my speech with regard to support for the initiative to provide information about the risks of alcohol use. In response, an overwhelming number approved of the initiative to provide information on the risks associated with alcohol during pregnancy.
What are the numbers? Some 87% approval for requiring health warning labels, 97% of Canadians approve government-sponsored advertising, 95% approve of warning messages on alcohol advertising, 85% approve of warning signs in bars and clubs, and 80% approve of warning signs in restaurants.
Canadians overwhelmingly support labelling and messages about the significant risks associated with alcohol consumption. Now is the time for Parliament to act.
If we could prevent even a small percentage of the problems caused by misuse of alcohol, the savings in health social programs, education and criminal justice costs would be many times more cost effective than an effective national alcohol harm reduction strategy. More important, we could eliminate so much misery and human suffering, and that is the essence of a caring society.
Members will want to know, do labels work? That is the wrong question. Labels on the bottles of beverage alcohol should be considered to be the declaration of Canada that alcohol is a harmful product if misused and Canada is going to start the strategy to ensure that we get a real harm reduction strategy very soon.