On wine labels, truth is no defense

Jacob Sullum

3/7/2003 12:00:00 AM - Jacob Sullum

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."

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." Since the pamphlet offers just the sort of "balanced" -- i.e., overwhelmingly negative -- take on alcohol that the Treasury Department has always favored, it could not very well say no.

In 1999, after considering the proposal for three years, the BATF approved both the Wine Institute's "directional statement" and one from California's Laurel Glen Winery urging people "to consult with your family doctor about the health effects of wine consumption." Amazingly, these utterly bland statements caused an uproar among anti-alcohol activists and legislators, who insisted they would encourage alcohol abuse.

The National Council on Alcoholism called the labels "potentially disastrous." Sen. Strom Thurmond, R-S.C., retaliated by holding up Treasury Department appointments and threatening to remove the BATF's jurisdiction over alcohol and give it to the Food and Drug Administration.

"The approval of these labels generated considerable interest," the new regulations euphemistically note. So much "interest," in fact, that the BATF put a moratorium on the labels that its successor, the TTB, is removing only now.

Here's the kicker. The TTB has decided that advising consumers to send for a government pamphlet or consult with their doctors is so incendiary that it must be neutralized by a disclaimer: "This statement should not encourage you to drink or to increase your alcohol consumption for health reasons."

The Wine Institute, cowed by decades of getting the government's permission before speaking, issued a press release praising the TTB's decision. The group's president, John De Luca, said, "We believe science has prevailed over politics."

I believe neoprohibitionist censorship has prevailed over freedom of speech.