14 Jul 2012

'Explosion' in foetal alcohol syndrome

10:40 pm on 14 July 2012

The Ministry of Health says talk of a significant increase in the number of children with foetal alcohol syndrome is of real concern.

The National Addiction Centre says there may be as many as 3000 children born in New Zealand each year with the syndrome.

Director Doug Sellman says evidence shows the situation is far worse in New Zealand than in other countries, due to the binge drinking culture here.

The Ministry of Health's chief advisor for child and youth health, Dr Pat Tuohy, says the health select committee has heard evidence and opinions from a wide range of people about ways of reducing harm from alcohol.

"This is a very active issue and it's not going to go away."

Children's Commissioner Russell Wills says there has been an explosion in the number of children with foetal alcohol syndrome. In his submission to the committee on Thursday, Dr Wills urged MPs to look again at a minimum price regime for alcohol.

The Alcohol Reform Bill making its way through Parliament includes new rules restricting the sale of ready-to-drink alcohol beverages (RTDs) in off-licences and banning dairies and smaller convenience shops from selling alcohol.

It proposes splitting the age people can buy alcohol: a purchase age of 18 for premises such as bars and restaurants and 20 at supermarkets and liquor stores.

Labour is putting up an amendment giving the power to set a minimum price per unit of alcohol, but Prime Minister John Key has said he is not convinced minimum pricing would deter people from buying alcohol.

The Ministry of Justice is looking at minimum pricing and will advise the government.

Syndrome ruins lives - principal

A Northland school principal says he sees about three children a year with foetal alcohol syndrome and their lives are ruined by it.

Principal of Horohoro Primary School Pat Newman says the most severely-affected children are brain-damaged and cannot learn in the way other youngsters do. He says they need the help of a teacher-aide to acquire even simple skills, such as counting to ten, and many would not be capable of looking after themselves without a caregiver.

"They actually do have to go out into the world and I sit in fear sometimes, wondering what happens to them when they leave the school system."

Mr Newman says the mothers of foetal alcohol syndrome children are often very young, and it is heart-breaking to see the damage they have inflicted on their children by drinking while pregnant.

He says drinking in pregnancy is a form of child abuse and should be a criminal offence.

"If it's an offence to slap a child, then I think it should be an offence to put a child, whether they're born or unborn, into a situation where they are going to be affected for the rest of their life to the degree that alcohol does."