Drink Up Anyway

Wine label censorship

It was more than a decade ago that wineries first tried to inform their customers about the health benefits of moderate drinking. Since then the evidence has only gotten stronger, but the federal government still won't let them talk about it.

That is the upshot of regulations published in March by the Treasury Department's Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB), which has taken over the speech policing duties that used to be handled by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms. In 31 pages of tiny type, the TTB reiterated the government's position that "a specific health claim on a label or in an advertisement," no matter how well documented, "is considered misleading" unless it is accompanied by detailed warnings about the risks of alcohol consumption (in addition to the existing surgeon general's warning). Since fitting all that information on a wine label is impractical, this requirement has the same effect as a flat prohibition.

The TTB also decided that recommending the federal government's own advice about alcohol was misleading without a disclaimer. In 1999 the Treasury Department approved a label that directs consumers seeking information on "the health effects of wine consumption" to the government's Dietary Guidelines for Americans. The section on alcohol in this pamphlet is a litany of dire warnings that includes one positive statement: "Drinking in moderation may lower risk for coronary heart disease, mainly among men over age 45 and women under age 55."

The bland reference to the guidelines caused an uproar among anti-alcohol activists and legislators, who insisted it would encourage alcohol abuse. Seeming to accept this argument, the TTB is now requiring wineries to counteract any mention of the pamphlet with a warning: "This statement should not encourage you to drink or to increase your alcohol consumption for health reasons."

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