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Alcohol Policy and FASD Prevention

I Introduction
II Role of public health
III Social marketing campaign
IV Resources

--submitted by Wendy McAllister, BSc, Manager, Best Start Resource Centre, Health Nexus, and Benjamin Rempel, MPH, health promotion field support specialist, Public Health Ontario

I Introduction

The term used to describe the range of defects and disabilities caused by prenatal exposure to alcohol is Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD). As many as 300,000 Canadians live with this disorder which can consist of serious problems such as brain damage, birth defects and developmental delays resulting from alcohol consumption during pregnancy ( Despite rare single research studies suggesting small amounts of alcohol can be consumed while pregnant, current cumulative evidence indicates there is no proven safe level of alcohol consumption during pregnancy.

After reviewing decades of research in FASD and prevention, Dr. Peter Butt and colleagues (2011, p.20) suggest “the safest course of action for a pregnant woman or someone planning to become pregnant is to avoid alcohol completely.” ( Applying the precautionary principle, these same authors also recommend abstaining from alcohol use before breastfeeding.

Butt and colleagues’ report – Alcohol and Health in Canada: A Summary of Evidence and Guidelines for Low-Risk Drinking was used as support in developing the 2011 Canada’s Low-Risk Alcohol Drinking Guidelines. Specific to pregnancy, these guidelines emphasize that if a woman is pregnant, planning to become pregnant, or about to breastfeed, the safest choice is to drink no alcohol at all (

Despite sound research advice, the general public continues to have questions about the use of alcohol during pregnancy (Best Start Resource Centre, 2009). During a webinar in 2010, Nancy Poole of the British Columbia Centre of Excellence for Women’s Health and Denise DePape of the British Columbia Ministry of Healthy Living and Sport suggested societal misunderstanding of FASD research and prevention could be caused by a variety of factors including extensive promotion of alcohol to females; lack of progressive alcohol policy at different levels of government; physician discomfort with discussing alcohol use with women; and multiple determinants of health affecting birth mothers of children with FASD, such as violence and stigma (The PowerPoint and printable PDF are available at

The field of public health can work towards changing these trends.

II Role of public health

As recommended by Poole and DePape, public health practitioners can bring forward the issue of FASD within organizations, workplaces, and through effective advocates. Mobilizing community actors to include effective FASD approaches and strategies within regional and / or municipal policies should also be pursued. Further, proven alcohol strategies should be prioritized among public health program planners including interventions which consider alcohol pricing policies, screening and brief interventions for hazardous drinkers, restrictions on days and hours of sale and outlet density, raising the minimum legal purchase age, introducing sobriety checkpoints, lowering blood alcohol content limits, pursuing graduated licensing for novice drivers, and maintaining government monopoly of retail alcohol sales. In order to address alcohol use in pregnancy in a comprehensive manner, supports, which can include harm reduction approaches, should also be in place for women who struggle with substance use.

“FASD can be prevented if pregnant women receive accurate information regarding the risks of alcohol consumption in pregnancy, and have access to needed health and social supports,” says Wendy McAllister, Manager of the Best Start Resource Centre. “If a woman is pregnant, thinks she is pregnant, or is planning a pregnancy, the surest way to eliminate the risk of FASD is to avoid alcohol completely. Help is available for women who need support in addressing their alcohol use.”

III Social marketing campaign

To help spread this message of prevention, the Best Start Resource Centre and partners introduced a social marketing campaign in numerous communities across Ontario. The Prevention Working Group of FASD ONE, through funding from the Public Health Agency of Canada - Ontario Region, purchased a range of provincial media buys about alcohol and pregnancy.

Released through a variety of mediums including transit ads, Cineplex theatre ads, and mall ads, along with brochures, posters, and displays, this campaign began on August 27,  2012 to support local efforts to raise awareness about alcohol and pregnancy.


Social marketing campaign image

In addition, a social media release and three English and three French ready to use print articles have been made available through News Canada for use with local media, placement in newsletters, and others methods. These links are:

To learn more about the social marketing campaign strategies, please visit: contact Wendy McAllister at:

To learn more about alcohol policy or capacity building services at Public Health Ontario, please visit: contact Ben Rempel at:

IV Resources

Social marketing campaign

The social media release and three English and three French ready to use print articles are available through News Canada for use with local media, placement in newsletters, and others methods at:  

Alcohol and Health in Canada: A Summary of Evidence and Guidelines for Low-Risk Drinking available at

Canada’s Low-Risk Alcohol Drinking Guidelines available at