Opinion: Bitter lesson of Alcohol Concern's proposed ban

On 20 April, Lord Mitchell's Alcohol Labelling Bill received its second reading in the House of Lords.

It's a private member's bill, designed to ensure that manufacturers and importers of alcohol have to label bottles or cans with the words "Government warning: drinking alcoholic beverages during pregnancy, even in small quantities, can have serious consequences for the health of the baby".

Nearly every lord present supported it, after evidence was cited to suggest that foetal alcohol syndrome is vastly under-diagnosed.

Of course, there wasn't complete agreement on the issue. The Government still argues moderate drinking in pregnancy is safe, despite growing evidence to the contrary, especially from forensic psychiatrists specialising in children and adolescents, who see young people in prison and secure training centres, where they believe the incidence of these disorders is far greater than once thought. The Government's response was that it would try a voluntary agreement, but would legislate if it did not work. This was a victory for Mitchell and for Susan Fleisher of the National Organisation on Foetal Alcohol Syndrome. It also showed the voluntary sector at its best: making a case, convincing parliamentarians and getting the promise of further action.

The same was not true of Alcohol Concern, an organisation usually so careful about how it campaigns. Just a week after that debate, it issued its excellent report Glass Half Empty?, focusing on the amount of alcohol consumed by children in recent years. For girls aged 11 to 13, it rose by 82.6 per cent between 2000 and 2006; for boys of the same age, it rose by 43.4 per cent in the same period. Alcohol has never been cheaper, the law covering underage children buying alcohol is often disregarded and advertising of alcohol before the watershed is commonplace on TV and in cinemas. All of this is ripe material for campaigning, law enforcement and greater awareness. But the recommendation that hit the headlines was that of making it illegal to provide alcohol to anyone under the age of 15, even in their own homes.

This played badly for several reasons. In my own family, our children, from a very young age, had a tiny sip of wine every Friday night at the beginning of our Sabbath as we said blessings over wine and bread. They puckered up their faces and thought it was revolting. We could have given them grape juice, but we believed this was acceptable. Children need to learn to drink responsibly somewhere. Forbidding it will not work.

There is a bitter lesson here. When a report is drafted and recommendations are made, it is not only whether the organisation thinks it is right that matters. It must consider how it will play with the media and the public. Alcohol Concern failed to understand how this would hit the 'nanny state' panic button. It is a real shame, because the cause is excellent. But at least the public now knows about Alcohol Concern.

- Julia Neuberger is a Liberal Democrat peer and chair of the Commission on the Future of Volunteering.

And while we're on the subject ...

- If the Alcohol Labelling Bill comes into effect, manufacturers will have to include a health warning on labels. Offenders could face fines or even imprisonment of up to two years. Having passed its second reading in the Lords, the Bill is awaiting a date for its Lords committee stage.

- The term foetal alcohol syndrome covers a number of abnormalities that can occur in the children of women who drink alcohol during pregnancy. The damage caused is irreversible, affecting the child for life. Symptoms include a low birth weight, a small head, a flat face with a thin upper lip, learning difficulties and hyperactivity.

- Alcohol consumption among 11 to 15-year-olds fell by 5 per cent between 2001 and 2006, according to government statistics. But figures released last month showed that the amount of alcohol consumed by girls aged 11 to 13 went up by 82.6 per cent between 2000 and 2006. For boys, the figure was 43.4 per cent.

- Apart from suggesting that giving alcohol to anyone under 15 at any time should be made illegal, Alcohol Concern urged that the law concerning underage purchase should be better enforced, that alcohol advertising before the watershed should be banned and that alcohol education should be made part of the national curriculum.

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