Bottle Battle


The Wine Institute calls it "a historic regulatory breakthrough." The National Council on Alcoholism says it's "potentially disastrous."

The focus of these strong feelings is a bland suggestion that the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms recently decided to let vintners include on their labels: "To learn the health effects of wine consumption, send for the federal government's Dietary Guidelines for Americans."

If you're wondering what the big deal is, you can write to the address on the label or visit the Web site listed after the address (www.usda.gov/fcs/cnpp.htm). But reading the Dietary Guidelines only deepens the mystery.

"If you drink alcoholic beverages," a headline warns, "do so only in moderation" (defined as no more than two drinks a day for men, one for women). The rest of the section consists almost entirely of reasons not to drink: "Alcoholic beverages supply calories but few or no nutrients." They are "harmful when consumed in excess." They "may alter judgment and can lead to dependency and a great many other serious health problems."

Heavy drinking, we are told, raises "the risk for high blood pressure, stroke, heart disease, certain cancers, accidents, violence, suicides, birth defects, and overall mortality." It can lead indirectly to malnutrition, and it "may cause cirrhosis of the liver, inflammation of the pancreas, and damage to the brain and heart."

The pamphlet also lists people who "should not drink alcoholic beverages at all." These include alcoholics, children and adolescents, "women who are trying to conceive or who are pregnant," people using prescription drugs, and "individuals who plan to drive or take part in activities that require attention or skill."

Why is the wine industry so eager for consumers to see this litany of warnings? Conversely, why are anti-alcohol crusaders worried about the prospect?

Both are focusing on two positive statements in a discussion that is otherwise unrelentingly negative: (1) "Alcoholic beverages have been used to enhance the enjoyment of meals by many societies throughout human history." (2) "Current evidence suggests that moderate drinking is associated with a lower risk for coronary heart disease in some individuals."

Because of these two sentences, it took the Wine Institute three years to convince the BATF that the American public could be trusted with instructions for obtaining the federal government's own advice about drinking. Opponents warned that the information would encourage alcohol abuse.

In response to that improbable concern, the Department of Health and Human Services commissioned a 1997 survey aimed at assessing how wine drinkers would react to the proposed label language. Only 3 percent of respondents said they would be inclined to drink more. The researchers concluded that "the risk of alcohol abuse resulting from the directional labels is negligible because they will not encourage a change in consumption patterns."

If so, one might reasonably ask, what is the point of the label? Wine Institute President John De Luca says "the label is an essential educational component of our public policy mission to counter efforts in some quarters to mischaracterize wine as a 'gateway drug' and a 'sin' that warrants higher taxes, trade limitations, and advertising restrictions."

In other words, the aim is to sway policy makers, not to inform consumers. The label is a weapon in the propaganda battle between those who view alcohol as an unmitigated evil and those who have a more nuanced view.

According to the Associated Press, Surgeon General David Satcher worries that any attempt to balance the stern government warnings that have appeared on wine bottles since 1989 will send "mixed messages." This concern reflects the belief, so common among bureaucrats and regulators, that the average American simply cannot grasp the idea that the same product could have risks as well as benefits.

In a free society, of course, the government is not supposed to decide whether the people can handle the truth. Indeed, the bottom-line explanation for why the BATF ultimately approved the wine label, despite strong opposition by powerful people such as Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.), is that it has no statutory or constitutional authority to reject language that is neither false nor misleading.

Yet the BATF still maintains that explicit references to the benefits of moderate drinking, "regardless of their truthfulness," are "inherently misleading"–a position that codifies the black-and-white thinking of the anti-alcohol movement. In this context, the Wine Institute's celebration of its meager victory is more understandable, though no less pathetic.