Fact Check

WHO Isn't Banning 'Women of Childbearing Age' from Drinking Alcohol

Some headlines distorted details from the UN agency's global action plan on tackling harmful use of alcohol.

Published Jun 19, 2021

 (Silar/Wikimedia Commons)
Image Via Silar/Wikimedia Commons
The World Health Organization (WHO) proposed a ban on women of childbearing age drinking alcohol in its global action plan released on June 15, 2021.

The only ban WHO references in its report is related to some marketing and advertising of alcohol products. While the WHO report states “appropriate attention should be given to [...] prevention of drinking among pregnant women and women of childbearing age,” the WHO clarified that this was simply to raise awareness of serious consequences of alcohol consumption while pregnant, even when the pregnancy is not known. The WHO includes other vulnerable groups like children in its assessment.

On June 15, 2021, the World Health Organization (WHO) released a first draft report detailing its “Global Action Plan on Alcohol.” The document called for “accelerated action to reduce the harmful use of alcohol” and detailed the health impact of certain levels of alcohol consumption on populations around the world—not just women.

The report did argue for paying attention to alcohol consumption by pregnant women and women of childbearing age, among other vulnerable groups.

However, rage-bait headlines published by a number of outlets made it appear as if the WHO had proposed to ban women of childbearing age from drinking alcohol entirely. An Irish Post headline read, “World Health Organization wants to BAN all women aged 18-50 from drinking alcohol.” A Daily Mail headline said, “World Health Organization plan to stop women of child-bearing age from drinking alcohol would be 'completely disproportionate', critics say.”

Numerous outlets also described the language of the report as sexist.

These headlines misrepresented the WHO report. While the report does say, “appropriate attention should be given to [...] prevention of drinking among pregnant women and women of childbearing age,” it meant in the context of raising awareness around alcohol-related harm. Reproductive age, according to the WHO, ranges from 15 to 50 years old.

The report did not call for a specific ban on alcohol, nor could the WHO realistically implement such a ban. Rather, it suggests awareness-raising campaigns, such as a “World no alcohol day/week” as one way to teach more people about potential harmful impacts of alcohol.

Additionally, the report is titled: “Global Strategy to Reduce the Harmful Use of Alcohol” (emphasis: ours). Such measures, through the SAFER initiative include policy suggestions such as restricting alcohol availability and banning alcohol promotion and advertisements. Part 2 of the report, which references women of childbearing age, focuses on awareness-raising and advocacy, a far cry from prohibition.

The report also details:

The impact of harmful use of alcohol on health and well-being [...] should be expanded to include other areas of health and development such as mental health, injuries, violence, infectious diseases, productivity at workplaces, family functioning and a “harm to others” perspective. Modern communication technologies and multimedia materials are needed for successful advocacy and behavioural change campaigns, including social media engagement.

In a statement to Newsweek, WHO clarified: “The current draft of WHO's global action plan does not recommend abstinence of all women who are of an age at which they could become pregnant. However it does seek to raise awareness of the serious consequences that can result from drinking alcohol while pregnant, even when the pregnancy is not yet known." WHO added that the report was a "first draft" and several rounds of consultations will take place before it is finalized and released.

Given that the language and intention of the report has been misrepresented in headlines, and the WHO has denied recommending women abstain from drinking alcohol, we rate this claim as “False.”

Nur Nasreen Ibrahim is a reporter with experience working in television, international news coverage, fact checking, and creative writing.