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, Bill C-251 proposes health warning labels on the containers of alcoholic beverages to remind consumers about the serious risks associated with alcohol misuse.
Why? Because alcohol is the only consumer product that can harm us if misused but does not warn us about that fact.
Furthermore, 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.
Alcohol is an integral part of our society. While nearly three-quarters of Canadians drink, no one is immune to its consequences.
Alcohol plays a role in thousands of premature deaths, preventable injuries and prenatal brain damage every year. It is associated with increased risk of cirrhosis of the liver, cancer, cardiovascular disease, respiratory diseases, homicides, suicides, motor vehicle, boat and snowmobile crashes, falls, fires and drownings.
Moreover, higher rates of consumption are associated with increased mental illness, an increase in crime, and reduced worker productivity. These translate into a human loss of devastating proportions and an economic toll of billions of dollars each year.
In Canada, for instance, it is estimated that the cost of alcohol abuse is at least $10 billion per year in health care, law enforcement and lost productivity.
Here are some interesting facts. Do members know that 42% of serious crime involves the use of alcohol? Thus, when we talk about getting tough on crime, we also have to deal with the prevention side, and certainly this is one opportunity. As well, the latest statistics on impaired driving show that over 1,100 Canadians were killed in 2004 and over 68,000 injured.
I also want to talk a little about fetal alcohol syndrome. It is a subject I have been working on for over 12 years and it is integrally related to the subject matter.
In one week, as many as 10,000 babies are born in Canada. Of these, three are born with muscular dystrophy, four are born with HIV infection, eight are born with spina bifida, 10 are born with Down's syndrome, 20 are born with fetal alcohol syndrome, and 100 are born with other alcohol related birth defects.
Fetal alcohol syndrome, commonly known as FAS and now called fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, or FASD, refers to a group of physical and mental birth defects. Its primary symptoms include growth deficiency before and after birth, central nervous system dysfunction resulting in learning disabilities, and physical malformities in the face and cranial areas.Other alcohol related birth defects involve central nervous system damage like FAS, but without those physical abnormalities.
Since FASD is incurable, most victims will usually require special care throughout their lives. Depending on the severity, the estimated lifetime cost for the care of a person with such an affliction ranges from $3 million to $6 million.
The secondary symptoms of FAS relate to the quality of life characteristics: 90% have mental health problems; 60% will be expelled or suspended from school or will drop out; 60% will get into trouble with the law; 50% will exhibit inappropriate sexual behaviour; 30% will abuse drugs or alcohol; 80% will not be capable of living independently; and 80% will have employment problems. As well, federal and provincial authorities both have estimated that as many as 50% of the inmates in the prisons of Canada suffer from alcohol related birth defects.
Tragically, these severe problems could have been prevented if the mother had abstained from alcohol consumption during her pregnancy.
Harm can occur at any time during the pregnancy, even during the first month, when most women do not even know they are pregnant. Research findings suggest that days 15 to 22 make up the period of pregnancy during which facial and cranial deformities could be caused by alcohol consumption. That is why women should not wait until they find out they are pregnant before they stop drinking.
Over 50% of pregnancies are unplanned. Therefore, if a woman is sexually active and pregnancy is possible she should abstain from consuming alcohol. To choose not to abstain is the same as playing Russian roulette with the lifelong health and well-being of her child. There is no recommended safe level of alcohol consumption during pregnancy. Therefore, the prudent choice for women is to abstain from consuming alcohol.
Beverage alcohol is ethanol. Many do not know that alcohol is a poisonous substance and in high doses can be lethal. Small amounts of alcohol can impair judgment, motor ability and reflexes. Many also do not know that alcohol, when combined with innocuous over the counter medications, can result in significant health problems.
Alcohol is a depressant, which can result in increased anxiety levels, severe mood swings, and clinical depression. Young people are also at greater risk because they are still developing physically and psychologically.
In an era of reduced social spending and a widening disparity between rich and poor, it is extremely important that we not lose sight of the role of government in promoting and protecting public health and safety.
There is no simple solution to this complex problem. As such, governments need to develop a comprehensive strategy to address both prevention and remediation.
The strategy should include policies, social marketing, skill-building and educational measures. It may include taxation and other policy measures to reduce alcohol related problems. There could be increased support for addictions research and treatment and more support for community-based health promotion, prevention, early identification and, of course, treatment programs. It should provide equitable access to housing, employment, a clean and safe environment and needed health and social services, all of which contribute to a responsible drinking environment in the community.
In September 2006 the second report of the Standing Committee on Health recommended that the government develop a comprehensive national and federal action plan. It is notable that this is exactly what the health committee recommended in June 1992, almost 15 years ago, in an identical recommendation.
The alcohol industry does have a moral duty and a social responsibility to warn the public of the potential harm associated with its products. The industry spends billions of dollars each year promoting its products, with a disproportionate amount of that promotion being targeted at the younger population.
The industry would like us to believe that it discharges that responsibility by sponsoring public service announcements, distributing brochures, or running multi-media messaging. However, the cost of these initiatives is only a small fraction of its marketing budget.
The industry also suggests everybody knows that alcohol consumption presents a risk of harming oneself or others, so it does not have to do anything about it. That is not the point. Clearly there is a risk associated with every drink consumed and, whether or not it is heeded, this risk should be clearly and consistently spelled out on every alcohol label, package and container and in every advertisement and promotion.
To argue whether or not information on a warning label has an immediate impact on individual behaviour is pointless. There are many factors that influence behaviour, and health warning labels just happen to be one. The fact is, research shows that even Coca-Cola will lose market share if it does not continue to advertise at the same levels that we see day in and day out. The constant repetition of the message or image does make a difference in terms of consumer behaviour.
Health warning labels have been described as a consumer lighthouse, sending repetitive signals of impending danger. They remind us of all the responsible use messaging we have ever been exposed to.
Labels are not just for potential abusers; they are also for the broader population that may have an opportunity to identify situations where someone else's drinking risks harming themselves or others. The label, therefore, also serves as a reminder that in these circumstances we all have a responsibility to take appropriate action to ensure that the abuser does not become just another statistic.
The presence of a simple, readable and targeted health message on alcohol products does one important thing: it acknowledges and reinforces the fact that alcohol is not just another consumer commodity. It is in fact a product that when misused has negative consequences, not only for consumers, but also for their friends, family, co-workers and community.
Warning labels and consumer health information can play a role in educating the public but should not be considered in isolation since knowledge alone rarely results in changed behaviour. Consumers do have a right to know what constitutes responsible consumption, the potential consequences of misuse, and where to go for assistance.
If we want to be serious about reducing the incidence of injury, disease, and death associated with alcohol misuse among the general population, we should not ignore the crucial parts of the equation: the consumer and the industry. Consumers have a right to be informed. The industry has a responsibility to give consumers clear and unbiased information.
Advertising and promotion tell only one side of the story. Labelling and consumer information tell the other.
I have worked on this issue for over 12 years now and I have yet to see any indication that what we have done over the past 12 years has helped at all in this matter. Two-thirds of Canadians support labelling, according to a Decima poll commissioned by Health Canada in February 2006. Seventy-one per cent of them were women. Two-thirds of the supporters said they were even willing to pay more for the product if the label was put on.
A number of groups and organizations support labelling. Let me mention a few: Health Canada, the Canadian Medical Association, the Canadian Nurses Association, the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health Canada, the Canadian Paediatric Society, the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse, Mothers Against Drunk Driving, the Canadian Police Association, and the Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs.
Bill C-251 advocates for health warning labels for containers of alcoholic beverages. Warning labels, which could include standard drink information, and health information targeted at the individual consumer complement existing population control policies. They also send a clear message that alcohol is not just another consumer commodity and that its consumption entails specific risks.
The absence of a warning label clearly sends the wrong message. We need to reassess why beverage alcohol is the only consumer product that can harm people if misused and does not warn the population about that fact. If we accept our responsibilities to promote and protect public safety and health, the beverage alcohol industry needs to be part of that solution.
Let me quote from 1992 report of the Standing Committee on Health. It said:
The Sub-committee is aware, as were most of our witnesses, that warning labels on containers of alcoholic beverages will not, by themselves, completely solve the problem...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.
I must emphasize this next sentence:
In all cases, the warnings were generally inconspicuous and difficult to read. It is essential that the warning labels adopted for Canadian products not emulate the United States examples....
That has been the problem all along. As people have suggested, a bad label does not work. That is prima facie.
Let me conclude by saying that if we could prevent even a small percentage of alcohol related birth defects, the savings in health, social programs and educational and criminal justice costs would be many times more than the cost of a national prevention strategy. More importantly, we could eliminate much human misery and suffering. That is the essence of a caring society.