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 this month 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 reiterates 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.
You may have noticed that wine bottles already carry a conspicuous warning label, required by federal law since 1989, calling attention to the birth defects, car accidents, and health problems that can result from alcohol abuse. In fact, it was partly to balance this daunting message that vintners began asking for permission to mention the large and growing body of evidence that moderate drinking helps prevent heart disease.
But that is not the kind of balance the government wants. "To the extent that the overall message of any health claim is inconsistent with the message of the Government warning statement," says the TTB, "it may result in label information that is confusing and could mislead the consumer."
Let's be clear: Wineries do not want to deny the existence of fetal alcohol syndrome, assert that driving while intoxicated is a good idea, or claim that heavy drinking has no health consequences. So when the TTB says a vintner's message would be "inconsistent" with the official warning, it means simply that the message would reflect well on the product.
Any suggestion that drinking wine could be good for you, by the TTB's way of thinking, has to be buried in verbiage that "adequately discloses the health risks associated with both moderate and heavier levels of health consumption" and "outlines the categories of individuals for whom any levels of alcohol consumption may cause health risks." Since fitting all that on a wine label is impractical, this requirement has the same effect as a flat prohibition.
More than six years ago, recognizing the government's intransigence on this issue, the Wine Institute, a trade group based in San Francisco, tried a new tack. Rather than say anything about health benefits, the institute proposed a label that would simply direct consumers to the federal government's own Dietary Guidelines for Americans for information on "the health effects of wine consumption."
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