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Idaho targets fetal alcohol syndrome

BOISE – Idaho state Rep. Liz Chavez tried unsuccessfully for two years to get legislation passed to warn about the risks of fetal alcohol syndrome wherever liquor is sold in Idaho, but now it’s happening anyway.

“I wasn’t going to give up,” said Chavez, D-Lewiston, whose legislation twice passed the House but failed in a Senate committee, this year without a hearing. “Not everything has to be legislated. It can be done cooperatively.”

Idaho Gov. Butch Otter, the state Department of Health and Welfare, the Idaho State Police, state lawmakers and others have unveiled the new warning program, which includes stickers that will be displayed prominently at the checkout counters and on display cases at state liquor stores, warning, “Alcohol can harm your baby. Be an Alcohol-Free Mother-to-be.”

The stickers also will be sent to businesses when they renew their liquor licenses and will be offered to bar owners, retailers and others who sell alcohol.

“It won’t be voluntary in the state liquor stores – it’ll be mandatory that these signs go up,” said Dyke Nally, superintendent of Idaho’s state Liquor Dispensary. “We will be very enthusiastically supporting this project. … We’re always in favor of any educational practice dealing with responsible consumption.”

Chavez’s adopted son, who died in 1993, suffered from fetal alcohol syndrome, which can cause severe physical, mental and behavioral impairments. “It’s 100 percent preventable – 100 percent,” Chavez said. “You just have to stop drinking for nine months, that’s it.”

State Health and Welfare Director Dick Armstrong said, “The only solution is prevention, because once these children are born with that syndrome, they’ll have it for the rest of their life.”

Washington and 18 other states have laws requiring the posting of such warnings, while seven others have a cooperative warning program like the one Idaho launched.

Chavez said Senate Health and Welfare Chair Patti Anne Lodge, R-Huston, who refused to hold a hearing on the bill this year, helped her contact Health and Welfare and get the program going. She also had co-sponsors from both houses and both parties.

Her first bill calling for mandatory warnings, in 2007, passed the House 56-13, but died after a Senate committee hearing. This year’s measure passed the House 45-17.

Rep. Bob Nonini, R-Coeur d’Alene, who voted against both bills in the House, said, “There’s some personal responsibility here for pregnant women to know that they shouldn’t consume alcohol. I’m sure their OB/GYN has those discussions with them. There’s some common sense involved.” He added, “I appreciate them trying to warn people, but is that government’s responsibility on every single issue?”

Chavez said she and her husband didn’t get the diagnosis of fetal alcohol syndrome for their son until he was 16, and the diagnosis troubled the young man. When he asked why his birth mother would do that to him, she said, all she could say was that she must not have known.

“Life is hard for fetal-alcohol kids,” said Chavez, a former middle school teacher.

She also credited first lady Lori Otter with helping get the program going. When she went to Otter, also a former teacher, “she just got it,” Chavez said. “She had taught kids who had fetal alcohol.”

House Health and Welfare Chair Sharon Block, R-Twin Falls, a retired kindergarten teacher, said she, too, taught youngsters who suffered from the syndrome. “This is one of the best things that has happened that I’ve been involved with since I’ve served in the Legislature,” Block said of the new warning program.