LONG BEACH — The message is simple: "Warning: Drinking any alcoholic beverage--including beer, wine and liquor--during pregnancy can cause birth defects."
But the wording became entangled in a battle of semantics Tuesday before the City Council unanimously agreed that every restaurant, bar, store and any other establishment in Long Beach selling or dispensing alcoholic beverages must post a sign warning pregnant women of possible dangers.
Representatives of the state's wine wholesalers and the restaurant industry objected to the wording of the signs, saying that a public education program would do a better job of teaching or reminding pregnant women that drinking could lead to mental retardation or other defects in their babies.
"The sign in itself does not address the problem, which is to get the message into the community," Gerald Breitbart, of the California Restaurant Assn., told the council.
Breitbart said the ordinance is "not legal," and he called the council's action "an attempt to control the sale of alcohol."
The California Restaurant Assn., which represents about 2,000 member restaurants in Los Angeles County, has an appeal pending on a lawsuit it lost in October against the City of Los Angeles. "If we win the appeal, naturally, we will take on the City of Long Beach," Breitbart said.
Both the city and county of Los Angeles last year adopted ordinances similar to the one Long Beach approved Tuesday. The Long Beach ordinance is set for final approval at the next meeting.
Breitbart objected to the word "warning" in the signs because, he told the council, it tells customers "don't go in." The industry, he continued, wants to be perceived as "the solution and not the problem."
Opponents also questioned whether beer and wine should be specifically mentioned in the signs. The council insisted that both should be included because many people differentiate among beer, wine and hard liquor.
Different Wording Used
In San Diego County, the restaurant industry earlier this year backed off from its objections to a similar ordinance when the suggested wording was changed. The signs there read: "Pregnancy and alcohol do not mix. Drinking alcoholic beverages, including beer and wine, during pregnancy can cause birth defects."
Gerrie Schipske, a member of the city's Board of Health and Human Services Department, said the Long Beach proposal will more adequately call attention to the dangers of drinking while pregnant than the San Diego signs.
Medical evidence has linked birth defects to even moderate drinking during pregnancy. Schipske said that "fetal alcohol syndrome" is the second-leading cause of birth defects in this country, covering a range of disorders related to maternal alcoholic consumption, including facial disfigurements, small head and body size and mental retardation.
Public Health Notice
Councilwoman Jan Hall called the signs "a public health notice and a public health warning." Councilman Warren Harwood noted that part of the targeted group in the public education program includes poor women who may not receive prenatal care.
Representatives of various commissions on women and family programs praised the council for supporting the ordinance.
The ordinance calls for all establishments selling or dispensing alcoholic beverages to post a sign no smaller than 8 inches wide and 8 inches long, with lettering no smaller than 1 inch in height, in a spot where it will be visible to the public.
Similar ordinances have been passed in New York City, Philadelphia and Columbus, Ohio. In California, only Los Angeles and San Diego counties have such ordinances, according to Joni Culp, a research assistant with the League of California Cities in Sacramento.
"It's a growing campaign to make people aware that any alcohol consumed during pregnancy can be harmful," Schipske said.