WASHINGTON -- A recent surgeon general's warning that pregnant women should completely avoid alcoholic beverages may be exaggerated, a researcher said Tuesday.
'The danger from light drinking (less than one ounce of absolute alcohol daily) has not been demonstrated and should not be overstated,' said Dr. Henry Rosett, director of the Fetal Alcohol Education Program at Boston University.
'Exaggeration could decrease credibility about the adverse effects of heavy drinking,' he said. 'In addition, exaggeration may cause parents of abnormal children to feel guilty that small amounts of alcoholic beverages caused anomalies that were actually due to other factors.'
Rosett, whose research has been backed in part by the Beverage Alcohol Information Council, a liquor industry group, made the comments in a paper to be delivered Thursday to a meeting in Hyannis, Mass. Copies of his paper were circulated in Washington by the industry group.
In July, the government issued a surgeon general's advisory warning women 'not to drink alcoholic beverages and to be aware of the alcoholic content of foods and drugs' during pregnancy.
It was by far the strongest official statement on the issue to date. It renewed general interest in the subject, and Sen. Storm Thurmond, R-S.C., has introduced legislation that would require warning statements on liquor labels advising women about the possible harm drinking does to the unborn.
Rosett said the controversy over the surgeon general's recommendation of total abstinence deflects attention from other portions of the advisory that said heavy drinking can cause fetal alcohol syndrome -- physical and mental impairment in the baby.
He said a report to the president and Congress on which the surgeon general's recommendation was based 'does not support' the call for total abstinence.
Doctors, he said, are 'more likely to accept a scientifically balanced report which discusses the complexities and not to accept oversimplified statements ... There is a danger that exaggeration of the weak evidence of the effects of small amounts of alcohol during pregnancy may interfere with the medical acceptance of the strong evidence of the adverse effects of heavy drinking.'
Rosett said among the complexities involved are that alcohol affects organ systems differently during various stages of growth; that a reduction of alcohol intake can modify some of the adverse effects on the child; and that delays in growth and development may be reversible.
The emphasis, he said, should be placed on the 5 to 10 percent of pregnant women who are probably drinking heavily enough to endanger the fetus. While mass media campaigns may increase general awareness, he said, 'they have limited therapeutic effect upon those women who abuse alcohol.'
'At this time we do not know the exact amount or timing of drinking that harms the fetus,' he added. 'We cannot say whether there is a safe amount of drinking or whether there is a safe time during pregnancy.'