GOVERNMENT WARNING: (1) ACCORDING TO THE SURGEON GENERAL, WOMEN SHOULD NOT DRINK ALCOHOLIC BEVERAGES DURING PREGNANCY BECAUSE OF THE RISK OF BIRTH DEFECTS. (2) CONSUMPTION OF ALCOHOLIC BEVERAGES IMPAIRS YOUR ABILITY TO DRIVE A CAR OR OPERATE MACHINERY, AND MAY CAUSE HEALTH PROBLEMS.
~Now don’t you feel better after reading that?
~You’ve got all the knowledge you need to make an informed decision whether or not you should buy a bottle of wine to take to the restaurant that allows corkage so that you and your recently pregnant wife can have a nice weekly dinner out. Plus, you can decide whether or not to drive home after dinner or call a taxi and pick up your car in the morning—and whether or not you should cut that wood before you go to bed.
~If you read the government warning literally you would know exactly what not to do—don't believe it. Like the CONTAINS SULFITE warning, the above warning provides no real information and, in the words of the bureaucrats, it may cause you to act out of ignorance.
~In scientific research studies there’s a set of numbers referred to as insignificant, which essentially means that some data showed up but not enough for a definitive answer—certainly not enough to issue a declaration or a blanket warning without qualification, let alone without information. A lot of the data behind the first half of the warning label is like that.
~I’ve read a lot of research and have discussed with a lot of people over the years about the existence of a birth defect known as Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS); its cause is believed to be alcohol in a pregnant woman’s blood stream (there are a number of other related syndromes within and beside FAS with initials of their own, but for the purpose of this post, I will use FAS as the overall one).
~The studies connected to FAS show that alcohol has an effect on the brain and physical functions of the fetus, creating a variety of possible problems from low memory retention to malformation of the body. The government warning that pregnant women should not consume alcohol alludes to but does not identify specific birth defects probably because it doesn't really know what to tell us.
~While much research points to the existence of FAS, it has not clearly identified how much alcohol it takes to cause it or at what point in the pregnancy the fetus is susceptible. In fact, there seems to be a lot of scientific speculation behind susceptibility.
The only thing that the research seems to be clear on is that for the most part heavy drinkers or alcoholics can possibly give birth to babies afflicted with FAS; when they do, the studies indicate that the birth defects represent anywhere between 1 and 5 out of 1,000 births, which leads me to wonder: if alcohol is the cause of FAS why aren’t all pregnant women who drink heavily giving birth to babies with FAS? Plus, how can some of the women in the studies have given birth to more than one baby but not all births seemed to suffer from FAS?
~There must be other factors involved in what is called FAS—smoking, drug abuse, poor diet, race—and if they are, then we need to find out to what extent alcohol plays a role? Some research has been done on those questions, and it appears there are indeed other factors involved in addition to alcohol, race is one of them, as is poverty, which could indicate diet. As you dig into the data the blanket government warning looks more and more dubious.
~Through all the studies that I have read about FAS none offered evidence that pregnant women who drink moderately have given birth to babies with the syndrome, although I remember a study claiming that 33 monkeys did show perceived signs of possibly having been affected by their mother’s low alcohol consumption during pregnancy, but no proof was provided that the monkeys suffered from FAS.
~Government officials and many in the medical profession take the attitude that if FAS is connected to alcohol then it is safe to recommend abstension while pregnant. You know, if you never drive a car you can’t drive one into a fence, but if you do drive a car it is possible that you may never drive one into a fence. But if that logic escapes the government how about this: should pregnant women stop consuming pickles, ice cream containing vanilla extract, vinaigrette dressing? All contain doses of alcohol. Should pregnant women stop gargling with mouthwash? Surely, there must be a safe low level of alcohol consumption during pregnancy.
~I think it’s fair to say that the warning to pregnant women is not just vague; it’s misleading.
~I have no doubt that consumption of alcohol can impair one’s ability to drive a car. I admit to having driven drunk when I was young and stupid. I believe every effort should be made to prevent people from driving while drunk, and people should be made to pay the consequences when caught doing so. But the warning doesn’t address the issue logically—again, it is on the side of complete abstinence, leaving the real question to dangle: how much alcohol impairs one’s ability to drive?
~To answer that question you need to know gender, body mass, and length of time over which a certain amount of alcohol is consumed and metabolized. For argument’s sake, let’s assume we are all alike. Generally, it takes almost one hour to fully metabolize the alcohol in a glass of wine. If you and your spouse have a bottle of wine over dinner in a restaurant and you each drink half, you will have each consumed about three glasses of wine. If you stay over dinner for two hours you will have metabolized at least two of those glasses, which means you will leave the place under the influence of one glass of wine. Would that impair your ability to drive?
The U.S. Department of Agriculture recently issued a new food pyramid. It reduced meats, upped fiber, and added wine in moderation for a healthy diet. Does the Department of Agriculture represent the same government as the one that created the warning label?
~The warning label states that alcohol consumption “may cause health problems?” OK, so too much alcohol may cause health problems. So does too much of a thousand other food and drink—what’s the government’s point?
~I.F. Stone used to tell his class of soon-to-be journalists that the first thing to remember is “governments lie.”
~I used to think that the point of the government’s warning label was to lie to the public but now I think differently. I believe the government’s alcohol warning exists as a way to alleviate guilt while appeasing certain interests groups. The government’s guilt stems from reaping tax revenue from demon alcohol; it’s appeasement is aimed at the variety of moralists and pseudo science groups who both lobby lawmakers and contribute to their coffers. But now I have ventured into the cynical; I should stop that.
Personal anecdote: My mother gave birth to ten of us. She gave up nothing during her pregnancies (notice my surname and its connection to wine). Despite what some grade school teachers might say about it, none of us seemed to have been mentally or physically handicapped by our mother’s lifestyle.
~On this subject it is truly difficult to recommend Web sites. You can find an abundance of online sites offering FAS information, but scratch the surface and you also find an awful lot of them with an agenda, and that includes the National Institute of Health. Check out these two sites and then put aside half a day and check out many of the others that Google will bring to you: FAS1, FAS2,
December, 2006. All Rights Reserved.