The price of alcohol

The provincial government concluded there was continued need to encourage women not to drink alcohol when pregnant, just six months after terminating a program that helped do exactly that, Public Eye has exclusively learned. The Healthy Choices in Pregnancy initiative was launched in 2005 to reduce the number of babies with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder. It did so by raising awareness of the risks of drinking during pregnancy among health practitioners.

Four years and $7 million later, in September 2009, the Campbell administration closed down the initiative as it cut spending in response to declining government revenues.

But, following that decision, bureaucrats in the ministries of citizens' services and healthy living prepared a statistical report showing some British Columbians still don't understand alcohol and fetuses didn't mix.

The July 2010 report - which was obtained via a freedom of information request - was drawn from the results of a BC Stats telephone survey that interviewed 7,026 British Columbians between April 2008 and March 2009.

Encouragingly, 82 percent of women and 74 percent of men had heard there's no known safe amount of alcohol to drink when pregnant. Seventy-eight percent of women and 70 percent of men had also heard there was no known safe time to drink alcohol when pregnant.

But that still meant 22 percent and 26 percent of British Columbians respectively weren't aware of those messages.

Perhaps even more troubling, though, was that 37 percent didn't know soft alcoholic beverages such as wine or coolers were just as dangerous to fetuses as hard liquors.

The survey also found 12 percent of women would cut back but not stop consuming alcohol if they found out they were pregnant and that 40 percent of those who were recently pregnant didn't actually change their drinking habits.

That could be because up to 35 percent of women responding to the survey were already teetotalers. Nevertheless, the report warned the survey may "under-represent women who drink during pregnancy."

"Women in middle to high education categories tend to underreport their drinking behavior," it stated, explaining "parenting and societal expectations of mothers can add a complicated layer of shame and fear for women who have used alcohol or have alcohol problems."

Finally, the survey raised questions about whether doctors have been doing enough to guard against fetal alcohol spectrum disorder.

Just 62 percent of women who were pregnant in the three years prior to be interviewed reported their healthcare provider discussed the effect of drinking during pregnancy on their baby's health.

The report acknowledged that could be because the women didn't understand or remember the information that was provided.

But, as a result of all this, it concluded there was a continued need for "awareness building strategies of the provincial messages; no known safe time, amount or type of alcohol use in pregnancy are necessary."

According to New Democrat health critic Adrian Dix, that makes the government's decision to cancel the Healthy Choices in Pregnancy initiative all that more puzzling.

"Sometimes we talk about decisions not being evidence-based and sometimes that occurs when the evidence isn't available to the government. And sometimes it occurs when it is and they do it anyway. And it would appear, in this case, they had the evidence, they sought out the evidence and then they acted contrary to the evidence which is - to say the least - misguided."

In response, a healthy living ministry spokesperson pointed out health authorities continue to provide prenatal services, programs and outreach even though the Health in Pregnancy initiative is no more.

The spokesperson also stated the government and its partners have also developed a fetal alcohol spectrum disorder prevention kit that will be sent to health care providers and agencies across the province in advance of FASD Awareness Day, which takes place on September 9.

Healthy Choices in Pregnancy

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