NOFAS Statement on Media Coverage of BMJ Study on Light Drinking

The National Organization on Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (NOFAS) is disappointed by the highly misleading, irresponsible, and downright false headlines and articles in some of the media coverage of a research study published this month in BMJ Open titled “Low alcohol consumption and pregnancy and childhood outcomes: time to change guidelines indicating apparently ‘safe’ levels of alcohol during pregnancy? A systematic review and meta-analyses”

The study found “poor quality of evidence” regarding the effects of light drinking during pregnancy, calling the evidence “sparse.” NOFAS understands this as an urgent call for more resources and attention to be devoted to the examination of the effects of low alcohol consumption on pregnancy, not evidence of a safe level of alcohol during pregnancy.

The study, “systematically reviewed data from a wide range of high quality observational studies.” The researchers assessed the impact of light drinking, “compared with no alcohol at all.” The study looked only at research into drinking at or below the level of four units of alcohol per week (≤32 g), which in practice is the equivalent of up to two typical-size glasses of beer or wine per week.

What the study did NOT find is that light drinking during pregnancy is safe. In fact, the study “found some evidence that women who reported drinking even this small amount of alcohol… were 8% more likely to deliver a baby that is small for its gestational age” and that light drinking “was associated with a 10% increased risk of preterm birth.” NOFAS doubts that many expectant mothers would consider these risks to be trivial.

However, many news articles mischaracterized the research as somehow proving that light drinking during pregnancy is completely safe. Here are just a few examples:

  • “Light drinking ‘does no harm in pregnancy” – The Times of London
  • “Light drinking during pregnancy does not harm unborn baby, study finds” – The Independent
  • “Pregnant mothers can drink 4 units of alcohol a week without putting their unborn baby at considerable risk, according to a new study” – Business Insider

The study confirmed that no research has found a completely safe amount of alcohol consumption while pregnant. There is also no known safe time to consume alcohol during pregnancy or safe type of alcohol. That is the conclusion of the CDC, NIH, the U.S. Surgeon General, and countless health organizations including AAP.

To set the record straight, several researchers associated with the study have directly refuted some of the inaccuracies in the media coverage. Two of the study’s authors wrote an article titled “Health risks of light drinking in pregnancy confirms that abstention is the safest approach.” The research institute that funded the BMJ –published study, and with which a majority of the study’s authors are formally affiliated, Collaboration for Leadership in Applied Health Research and Care West (CLAHRC West), tweeted this correction:

 

In terms of public health messaging the study finds that, “guidance could advise abstention as a precautionary principle but should explain the paucity of evidence,” and that “explaining that ‘absence of evidence is not evidence of absence’, appears warranted.” Some of the study’s authors tweeted, “It’s better to abstain from #alcohol during #pregnancy, our researchers concluded, though evidence is lacking.” It is outrageous that so much of the media coverage overlooks these very important points.

The timing for inaccurate media coverage about alcohol and pregnancy is unfortunate, but it is also an opportunity to disseminate the facts. September is Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASD) Awareness Month, and NOFAS has been working with many health agencies and organizations to get the word out about the risks of alcohol use during pregnancy, the importance of helping pregnant women who can’t stop drinking to get into recovery, and the need for more services, treatments, and supports for children and adults living with FASD.

NOFAS commends the media that have accurately covered the study, such as the following:

  • “Is One Drink OK For Pregnant Women? Around The Globe, The Answer Is No” – NPR
  • “There Is No Proven Safe Amount Of Alcohol In Pregnancy. No Alcohol, No Risk” – Huffington Post
  • Can you drink while pregnant? Even light drinking can cause problems” – Newsweek

NOFAS is also heartened that many are speaking out, and we join CLAHRC West in passing on important messages such as this one:

 

For more information, please visit the NOFAS webpage for expectant mothers, and on light drinking during pregnancy.