Warning labels proposed in war on alcoholism

State Rep. Suzanne Bump's husband is a recovering alcoholic. The Massachusetts legislator is sponsoring a bill to require warning labels on alcoholic beverages sold in the state. ``We are supposed to be concerned about drug abuse,'' Ms. Bump says. ``Yet everybody shies away from the biggest enemy in the war against drugs - alcohol - because it's the drug of choice for the older generation.''

In recent years, an emerging coalition of church groups, alcoholism workers, and citizen activists has tackled problem drinking on a number of fronts. It has pushed for higher federal excise taxes (at present, these are less than 25 percent of the 1951 level). It has also urged restrictions on liquor advertising.

Now the movement is focusing on a third front: warning labels, similar to those on cigarettes. Representative Bump says she has received inquiries from at least a dozen other states.

Maine, Georgia, and South Dakota already require warnings to pregnant women in establishments where alcohol is sold - as do a host of cities including New York, Philadelphia, and Los Angeles. A warning-label bill is pending in the United States Congress as well.

The alcohol industry has been calling people who support warning labels ``neo-prohibitionists.'' They dispute that, of course. ``We have never called for prohibition, merely for informing consumers about the specific public-safety risks of alcohol,'' says Pat Taylor of the Center for Science in the Public Interest in Washington, D.C.

But there is no question that feelings run strong. Polls show that problem drinking affects between a quarter and a third of all American families - twice as many as in 1974. The labeling issue raises fundamental questions about the role of social cues - such as product image and advertising - in encouraging or reinforcing problem drinking. It also brings to the fore the political throw-weight of the alcohol industry itself.

People who work with alcoholics say theirs is the hidden drug war, one the government and the news media rarely name. Alcohol, they say, is America's worst problem drug. It's involved in more than half the violent crimes. It contributes to about 100,000 deaths a year; that's more than double the toll of AIDS since 1981. Alcohol addiction costs the US economy more than $120 billion a year, says Health and Human Services Secretary Otis Bowen, who is a physician.

Yet official pronouncements on drugs generally give alcohol scant attention.

People like Paul McDevitt - who is Representative Bump's husband - make a point of speaking about the ``drug alcohol,'' as though to compensate for the prevailing indifference. ``We trivialize the drug called alcohol, and dramatize other drugs,'' he says.

``The hallmark of the alcoholic is denial'' of his drinking problem, adds Jean Kilbourne, an authority on tobacco and alcohol advertising. ``For a long time we as a society have helped that denial. We've been `enablers,''' a term that describes friends and family members who shield alcoholics and thus let them avoid facing up to their problem.

The issue of warning labels arose officially in 1977, when Food and Drug Commissioner Donald Kennedy called for such labels to warn pregnant women that drinking could harm their fetuses. The US Senate actually tacked a labeling amendment to a bill passed in 1979, but a House-Senate conference later dropped it in favor of a study.

The idea has kicked around in legislatures since then. But with drugs looming as a major issue in the fall elections, supporters are making another effort.

Opponents say labels are unlikely to stop someone who wants a drink. Jack Sanders of the Beer Institute calls them ``a false solution'' and ``emotional overreaction.'' Says Janet Flynn of the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, ``The risks of excessive alcohol consumption are well known.''

The industry is not alone in this view. ``We don't know what good it does,'' says Karst Besteman of the Alcohol and Drug Problems Association of North America, which supports warning labels anyway.

Supporters counter that many people are unaware that drinking poses dangers for pregnant women. This is especially the case with beer and wine coolers, which are marketed as fun beverages, almost like soft drinks. Some ads even appeal to health concerns. They show lithe young women sipping coolers after a workout, or boast of the pure mountain water, hops, and barley in a particular brand of beer.

``You would think people were driving under the influence of breakfast,'' says Mr. McDevitt, who left a state job to work full time helping others addicted to drink.

He recalls the US generals in Vietnam who complained they couldn't find the enemy because he wasn't wearing a uniform. ``You can't fight a war against drugs until you put a uniform on the enemy,'' he says. ``A label is a uniform.''

Supporters also point out that cigarette warnings have helped cut smoking over the last two decades. Secretary Bowen has advised Congress that labels on alcohol could be helpful.

Today, warnings appear not just on cigarettes, but on all manner of products, from extension ladders to bubble bath, which could be dangerous under some circumstances.

``It's the only drug in America you can buy without a warning label,'' says Dick Shire, Massachusetts chairman of Mothers Against Drunk Driving. ``Certainly, alcohol is far more dangerous than saccharine.''

Shire's 16-year-old son was riding a bicycle when an intoxicated driver ran him down seven years ago.

Opponents point to the Soviet Union, where drinking problems are rampant despite the absence of advertising and other kinds of promotion.

McDevitt concedes that warning labels are ``not a panacea.'' ``But it's the truth that sets us free,'' he says. ``Freedom from drugs is based on the truth about drugs, including the drug called alcohol. Once we tell the truth, it has a chance of competing with the lie.''

Some think counter-ads on television would accomplish this more effectively. But that takes money, as well as network cooperation.

A Gallup poll found that almost 80 percent of the American public favor warning labels on alcoholic beverages. (Seventy-five percent also favor such messages on TV and radio stations carrying beer and wine commercials.) The congressional sponsors of federal warning-label legislation span the political spectrum, from Sen. Strom Thurmond, a conservative Republican from South Carolina, to Rep. John Conyers, a black, liberal Democrat from Detroit.

But as is often the case, the public doesn't care about the issue as much as the industry does. ``The grass roots are with us, but translating that into [legislative support] is difficult,'' says Harvey Chinn, legislative director of the California Council on Alcohol Problems, which has worked for labeling legislation in that state.

In Congress, the obstacles are imposing. For example, the powerful Senate Commerce Committee, which has jurisdiction over the bill, has numerous members from alcohol-producing states. These include Sen. John Danforth, the ranking Republican from Missouri, where Anheuser-Busch is a major employer. Mr. Danforth was one of two senators who argued against the labeling proposal when Senator Thurmond offered it as an amendment in March.

``If you think about going through Commerce [Committee], it's dead,'' a congressional staff aide says.

There could be a similar problem in the House, where the subcommittee chairman is Henry Waxman of Los Angeles. Mr. Waxman is perhaps the most avid consumer advocate in the House on health issues, but he is also a member of the California delegation known for its loyalty to the wine industry.

Last week, the Massachusetts legislature, in effect, set aside Bump's bill by sending it to a study committee. ``They know the votes are there,'' Bump said of her opponents. ``The only thing they could do was to keep it from coming to a vote.''

Supporters of the bill may take the issue to the voters, through an initiative campaign. That's what happened in California, where voters bypassed the Legislature in enacting Proposition 65, a broad antitoxics measure that includes alcohol. A special state panel has yet to determine the exact kind of alcohol warnings to be required, whether labels or signs in restaurants and bars.

Walter S. Taylor, a winemaker in upstate New York, has been putting health warnings on his Bully Hill brand for years. (``Irresponsible use of this product could be harmful,'' one says, along with a graphic admonition against drinking and driving.) Far from scaring off customers, he's achieved a loyal following. ``The public permits us to exist, and we must be totally responsible,'' Mr. Taylor says.

Taylor incurred the ire of his industry in the early 1970s for suggesting that such steps as warning labels. But he sees a younger generation coming that is more in tune with today's concerns.

Another factor pushing for change is liability suits of the kind the tobacco industry has been fending off for years. Cigarette warning labels have helped protect the tobacco companies from these suits; some are suggesting the alcohol industry adopt them as well. Liquor companies object that while tobacco is harmful to all who smoke it, many people drink without harm to their health.

Dr. David Whitten of Kaiser Medical Center in San Francisco, who supports wine drinking in moderation, has urged the industry to act before it is acted upon. ``Don't make them cram it down your throats,'' he told a winemakers' gathering.

Asked later about the industry's position, he said, ``It's a seriously misguided attitude they are taking.''

First of two articles. Next: The alcohol industry aims to counter political opponents and abstinence.

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