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Damaging drinking Labor’s first policy target

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The Federal Government has promised to boost efforts to prevent, diagnose and manage foetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD) if re-elected on 7 September.

In its first health policy announcement of the Federal election campaign, the Labor Party has committed to providing $20 million to combat the disorder, which was described in a recent parliamentary committee report as “the largest cause of non-genetic, at-birth brain damage in Australia”.

Minister for Mental Health Jacinta Collins said the money would be used to help prevent alcohol abuse by pregnant women, and improve the understanding and detection of the disorder.

“FASD is an entirely preventable condition, and we need to take strong action on this critical issue,” Senator Collins said. “Our action plan will continue efforts to improve the diagnosis of FASD, which will help support those affected.”

The disorder can result in learning difficulties, a reduced capacity to remember tasks from day to day, anger management and behavioural issues, impaired speech and muscle coordination, and physical abnormalities in the heart, lung and other organs, and the effects can range from mild impairment to serious disability.

A House of Representative Committee inquiry into the condition said that, although there was little known about the extent of the problem, it was likely to be becoming more common.

“The causes, effects and the prevalence of FASD are largely unknown or hidden in Australia,” the Committee said. “It is a totally preventable condition which has no place in a modern developed world, and yet in Australia over 60 per cent of women continue consume alcohol when pregnant. It is expected that FASD is becoming more prevalent.”

The Foundation for Alcohol Education and Research warned the nation was at a “critical juncture” in tackling the condition, and has devised a plan for national action.

“For too long there has been a lack of coordinated action to prevent FASD and assist people affected,” the Foundation said.

Labor has identified five priorities: prevention of FASD, targeting health campaigns at women with alcohol dependency, improved diagnosis and management of FASD, targeted preventive and management action in Indigenous communities and areas of social disadvantage, and national coordination of research and workforce support.

Labor’s plan falls well short of the action urged by the Foundation, which has set out a detailed strategy encompassing comprehensive community education and awareness campaigns, support for those with FASD and improved data collection and research, with a total bill of more than $36 million.

The Foundation’s plan was commended by the Parliamentary committee.

Adrian Rollins