Policymakers gathered in Brussels this week to discuss the risks posed by alcohol abuse to unborn children urged the EU to introduce mandatory warning labels on bottles and cans.
"It is beyond doubt that women drinking during pregnancy harm their unborn children," Adam Fronczak, Polish Undersecretary of State for Health, told a European Parliament conference on the issue this week (7 September).
The children of mothers who drink alcohol during pregnancy often have anomalies in their facial features, nervous systems and even genetic make-up.
"Medical condition, amount consumed and the duration of consumption can all affect the seriousness of the consequences, but even small amounts can cause problems," said Fronczak.
Other symptoms of so-called Foetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS; see 'Background') include retarded growth and neurological damage, leading to poor memory and an inability to concentrate.
"The brains of FAS children are smaller and less developed, potentially leading to hyperactivity, autism, poor social skills, low IQ levels and learning difficulties. But FAS doesn't emerge in the same manner in every child," explained Martha Krijgsheld, who chairs a Dutch foundation working to help children who suffer from FAS.
Debate centres on warning labels
Campaigners for safe drinking are convinced that alcohol-related birth complications can be eliminated from Europe completely with the right communication tools in place.
"Everything is 100% preventable if we can deliver the message that there is no safe or acceptable limit," said Tatiana Collonozzi, president of the European Alcohol Policy Alliance (Eurocare).
At present, EU governments are pursuing a wide variety of policies on alcohol abuse. In France, all alcohol bottles and cans must carry labels warning of the dangerous consequences of drinking when pregnant, but many countries have no specific requirements.
"On unborn children, we have a long way to go," admitted John Dalli, the EU commissioner in charge of health and consumer policy, conceding that he was surprised to learn that there is no accurate EU-wide information available on the extent of foetal alcohol syndrome.
"We have an EU strategy and forum for reducing alcohol-related harm, but more can be done, especially to protect children from drinking in the home," the commissioner said.
Wide support for labelling
Dalli said the Commission's role was to coordinate action at EU level, facilitate exchange of best practice between those working in the field and encourage member states to introduce warning labels.
"Support is high among EU citizens for labelling on the dangers of alcohol consumption for unborn babies. We have not yet done all we can," Dalli said.
But he was coy upon being asked whether he would like to introduce an EU-wide labelling scheme, saying only that such decisions would depend on the backing of all 27 EU countries and the European Parliament too.
"Labelling is a decision that must be taken within the European structure in the usual way. But the Commission is encouraging all member states to take heed of the best practice being pursued in France," Dalli said.
Legal experts said EU governments already had the legal tools at their disposal to force producers to place warning labels on their products.
"The Consumer Products Directive obliges producers to carry labels on their products whenever the risks to consumers are not immediately obvious, as is clearly the case with alcohol and pregnancy," argued French lawyer Benoît Titran.
Campaigners wasted no time urging the European Commission to propose the introduction of a standard EU label warning against the risks of drinking when pregnant.
"All alcoholic beverages should carry health and safety warnings, in a standard design and location. They should be non-promotional, factual and understandable, and approved by EU health ministers," argued Eurocare Secretary-General Mariann Skar.
Call for EU action
Although alcohol policy is primarily an issue for national governments, campaigners believe it is high time for the EU to develop a continent-wide response.
"Alcohol is a global and EU-wide industry so it should be dealt with at EU level," according to Diane Black, chair of the EUFASD Alliance, which seeks to raise awareness of the dangers posed by alcohol consumption to unborn babies.
She wants the EU to promote the exchange of best practice between experts and do much more to support research.
Meanwhile, French lawyer Titran dismissed fears that alcohol companies would lose out as a result of displaying such warnings on their products. "Labelling can only have a positive impact and should be seen by companies as positive branding," he added.
A recent Eurobarometer survey showed that 79% of Europeans were in favour of alcohol carrying warning labels on unborn babies and drink driving,
But other observers are not convinced that labelling alone can eradicate the problem of drinking when pregnant altogether, arguing that they must be accompanied by sweeping changes to social attitudes towards drinking when pregnant, which is often considered acceptable.
"Pregnant women match their drinking levels to the expectations of friends and family around them," said EUFASD Alliance chair Black.
Informing everyone in Europe that there is no safe level for drinking when pregnant will require the creation of a network of diagnosis centres across Europe to accompany information campaigns and clear warnings on packaging and at points of sale, Black argued.