Wednesday, 17 March 2021
Community Affairs References Committee; Report
I rise to table a document, Mr Acting Deputy President Griff, in which I think you will be taking a great interest. I present the report of the Community Affairs References Committee on fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, together with the Hansard record of the proceedings and documents presented to the committee. I move:
That the Senate take note of the report.
This report makes 32 recommendations. This issue was referred to the Community Affairs References Committee more than 12 months ago, actually. It's an issue that the committee have long taken an interest in, and we took longer than we expected, obviously, because of the COVID pandemic.
Fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, otherwise known as FASD, is an entirely preventable permanent disability. FASD includes a range of physical and neurological impairments occurring due to brain damage caused by exposing a fetus to alcohol during pregnancy. As a spectrum disorder, FASD manifests in a range of ways, and conditions can range from very mild to severe.
The committee found that FASD is still not well understood or recognised in Australia. I'll come back to that, because that's particularly important. It is frequently called an invisible epidemic. The evidence indicates that the human, social and economic costs of FASD are immense. There is no safe level of alcohol that can be consumed during pregnancy. You'd think that by now in Australia we would get this, but we still have significant problems in that particular area, which is why we say that this is an entirely preventable disability. There are many myths regarding the so-called 'safe' use of alcohol during pregnancy that have been circulated in the community for a long time, including, I must say, by some health professionals and, most notably, the alcohol industry.
Prevention efforts must fundamentally aim to shift societal attitudes and behaviour around alcohol consumption in the broader Australian community. The committee recommends a long-term strategy and funding for FASD awareness and education, including in secondary school curriculums. In other words, we have to start making sure that people understand the harms caused by alcohol but also, specifically, the harms caused by alcohol in pregnancy. The evidence we received is that this doesn't just affect the fetus in utero. In other words, it's not just a message that's relevant to women but also an important message for men because it affects sperm as well.
It is very important that we raise awareness around alcohol consumption and FASD. The announcement of mandatory pregnancy warning labels on alcohol products and packaging during this inquiry was a long time coming, and we were pleased to see it. The committee urges alcohol companies to promptly implement the mandatory labels before the deadline in July 2023. It's not as if the industry don't know that they should have been doing this a long time ago.
Health professionals play a key role in prevention, diagnosis, and support for people with FASD and their families. Interactions with pregnant women and women of child-bearing age provide opportunities to educate women and their partners about the risks of maternal alcohol consumption and influence behaviour change. However, for a range of reasons, including stigma and a lack of understanding, health professionals do not always discuss alcohol with women or provide accurate advice or referrals. The committee is of the view that building the capacity of health professionals to identify and prevent harmful alcohol consumption during pregnancy must be prioritised.
I was especially alarmed by the evidence the committee received around online marketing of alcohol being used to microtarget particular cohorts. FARE commented that during the COVID-19 pandemic their analysis of Facebook and Instagram during a one-hour period showed an alcohol ad every 35 seconds. Almost a quarter of these referred specifically to the pandemic. What's happening is people are ordering alcohol online. This data is being collected and enabling this microtargeting. It's a very significant issue. There are serious conflicts of interest which mean industry managed processes could not properly restrict alcohol marketing in an effective manner. We need to be doing a lot more than just having a regulatory code, which has so many loopholes in alcohol advertising. It's clear we need a new approach to controlling alcohol marketing, especially online marketing. This, in fact, is to address not just FASD but also other, broader issues related to alcohol and its harm.
FASD is often not identified early in life. In fact, sometimes it's not identified at all. As a result, many people do not receive recognition of their disability or, very, very importantly, access to the support that they will need, and that needs to be lifelong support. Diagnosing FASD is complex and involves a multidisciplinary team. The committee heard that there are limited multidisciplinary FASD diagnostic services in Australia and waiting lists are very long. There's a clear need to ensure FASD diagnosis is more widely available across Australia. This includes building and training the health workforce involved in FASD diagnosis and exploring alternative models of assessment and the use of technology. Supports for a person with FASD will necessarily be, as I just indicated, over the entire life course. Unfortunately, support services in Australia are limited and can be cost prohibitive. Throughout the inquiry, the committee was made aware of the difficulties in accessing support through the education system, the NDIS and the social security system.
The committee agrees with submitters that FASD must be specifically recognised as a disability by the Australian government and the social security system. Access to assistance must be urgently improved to help people with FASD and their families to meet the extensive costs of FASD supports. The committee report also talks about the interaction of people with FASD with the justice system and also with the child protection system. It's very clear that we need to improve those interactions. As I indicated, we made 32 recommendations, but we also touched on the need to improve interactions between the justice system and the child protection system and the need to screen people—young people in particular—going into the justice system and also into the child protection system. We heard some very moving and emotional evidence from the carers of young children who have gone into the care system. They have not been screened and they are not getting adequate support for, in some cases, babies and young children whom they are providing care for. They weren't even given an indication that children potentially going into care in fact had FASD.
We saw some outstanding examples of work that's being done, including in the Marulu Strategy in Fitzroy Crossing, which has done an outstanding job of identifying issues around FASD. I personally will be fascinated to see the outcome of their 10-year follow-up study that we've just heard is occurring. I'm sure the people who were involved in the inquiry will be watching that very closely. We need much more data on FASD. We need a prevalence study. We still don't have an understanding of the prevalence of FASD in this country and we have a lack of data. It's absolutely essential that we address that issue.
This is, I think, a very important committee report. In fact, I thank the Acting Deputy Chair, Senator Griff, who initiated this inquiry by the Senate Community Affairs References Committee. I'd particularly like to thank all the witnesses and those who gave us submissions. They provided us with absolutely essential information. I apologise to the people in both Alice Springs and Fitzroy Crossing; because of COVID, we didn't actually make it up there for the site visits that we were so looking forward to. There are a number of committee members who still want to come up. I particularly want to thank the secretariat, who, once again, have gone above and beyond. They have produced an outstanding report and supported us very, very well. If no-one else wants to speak, I'll seek leave to continue my remarks later.
Leave granted; debate adjourned.