Last week the World Health Organisation (WHO) released the first draft of its Global action plan on alcohol (2022-2030) document.
The 37 page document outlines several components of the plan, including six action areas and global targets related to each area. In its entirety, the plan is intended to strengthen implementation of the ‘Global Strategy to Reduce the Harmful Use of Alcohol’.
Since the document’s release, there is one point that has drawn a lot of attention across the internet, under the second action area: Advocacy, awareness and commitment.
The document reads: “It is necessary to raise awareness among decision-makers and the general public about the risks and harms associated with alcohol consumption.
“Appropriate attention should be given to prevention of the initiation of drinking among children and adolescents, prevention of drinking among pregnant women and women of childbearing age, and protection of people from pressures to drink, especially in societies with high levels of alcohol consumption where heavy drinkers are encouraged to drink even more.”
Backlash to the document surrounds the use of the specific wording to call out “women of childbearing age ”. As the WHO defines that age bracket as including women aged 15 to 50, the document implies that women should not drink until they are over 50.
The phrasing of this paragraph has caused backlash the world over, with much of the commentary coming out of the United Kingdom.
Matt Lambert, the chief executive of the Portman Group, the regulator for alcohol labelling in the UK, told the UK’s Telegraph: “We are extremely concerned by the WHO calling on countries to prevent drinking among women of childbearing age in their latest action plan.
“As well as being sexist and paternalistic, and potentially restricting the freedoms of most women, it goes well beyond their remit and is not rooted in science.”
Meanwhile, Dr Richard Piper, chief executive of Alcohol Change UK, a charity that aims to reduce alcohol related harm, told the Telegraph: “Drinking alcohol in the early stages of pregnancy, even before many people realise they’re pregnant, can be very damaging for a foetus.
“It’s important that people understand these risks – but also vital that we balance this against each adult’s right to make informed decisions about what we do with our bodies, no matter our age or sex.”
UK researchers have also addressed the draft plan, including Colin Angus from Sheffield University, a senior research fellow who specialises in alcohol. Angus told MailOnline that the suggestion was “disproportionate”.
“The suggestion that we should actively prevent a substantial proportion of women from drinking is completely at odds with the balance of the risks of drinking and restrictions on personal freedom that we see in almost any country in the world,” Angus said.
The British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) has also addressed the suggestion in the plan, labelling it “disturbing.”
“It is extremely disturbing to see the World Health Organisation risk hard-won women’s rights by attempting to control their bodies and choices in this way. By treating all women – for 40 years of their lives – as little more than vessels, the WHO reduces women to little more than their reproductive capabilities,” said BPAS chief executive, Clare Murphy.
Meanwhile, Katherine O’Brien from BPAS told The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age: “It’s the idea that you are walking around as a vessel just waiting, so, therefore, your body must constantly be ready for this pregnancy.
“It literally means that you wouldn’t be able to have a drink until you’re retired, that your first drop of alcohol would be when you hit menopause, I mean how depressing would that be? It’s just insane.”
The fury raged on via social media as well, where many users drew comparisons to the dystopia of the book and TV show The Handmaid’s Tale, and pointed out how the document also did not address harmful alcohol use in the male population. Others raised concerns that the outrage-causing suggestion has taken the focus away from the other positive measures in the plan that are aimed at reducing alcohol-related harm.
In a statement to international media outlet Newsweek, the WHO clarified that the document is still just a first draft, and that it is not recommending all women of childbearing age not to drink.
The statement said: “The current draft of WHO’s global action plan does not recommend abstinence of all women who are of an age at which they could become pregnant. However it does seek to raise awareness of the serious consequences that can result from drinking alcohol while pregnant, even when the pregnancy is not yet known.”
On a local front, the reaction to the draft document and its suggestions is still developing, with the Australian industry yet to publicly comment on a widespread scale.
Food and Beverage Media is currently investigating local industry opinion on the matter – if you have any comments you’d like to be heard, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org .