Groups Stomp Proposed Wine Label

Dispute is whether new wording implies drinking has health benefits

What's in a label? Plenty, especially if it happens to be on a bottle of wine.

Last May, the Wine Institute asked the US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) to approve an addition to wine labels: a sentence inviting imbibers to learn "the health effects of moderate wine consumption" by sending away for the US government's dietary guidelines or by accessing the government's Internet site on the World Wide Web.

The proposal set off alarm bells among public-health groups, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), and the Health and Human Services Department (HHS). The American Medical Association (AMA), too, joined the fray, saying on Aug. 5 it would oppose any label that implies drinking, even in moderation, could be beneficial.

Now, it may fall to Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin to decide what to do about the label affair - and there's no shortage of people offering advice.

Sen. Strom Thurmond (R) of South Carolina says he's concerned that the "intent" of the current health warning on wine labels will be undermined and that citizens may be encouraged to drink more alcohol. Sen. Robert Byrd (D) of West Virginia recently wrote the ATF suggesting that public policy might be better served if the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) took over responsibility for the labeling issue.

Anti-alcohol groups are concerned that new wording on wine labels would lead people to believe there are beneficial health effects from drinking wine. "The whole thing is so cunningly worded that no right-thinking person could conclude that they are selling wine for anything other than health reasons," says George Hacker, director of the alcohol policies project at the Center for Science and the Public Interest. "They know these communications about the health benefits of moderate consumption of wine have had a positive effect on wine sales, and they want to keep that going."

Not so, says John De Luca, president of the Wine Institute in San Rafael, Calif. The proposed label is "neutral," he says, in that it does not imply any health benefit of drinking. "I can't believe we are being charged with a marketing strategy to simply ask people to read what the government itself puts out."

THE government's advice on drinking alcohol is carefully worded. "If adults choose to drink alcoholic beverages, they should consume them only in moderation," writes the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). The government defines moderation as a single drink for women and two for men in a day. Still, this represents a change from prior government advice that alcohol consumption in general is not recommended and that it has no health benefits.

AMA president Percy Wootton has complained that the proposed new label "fails to mention that both physicians and the [USDA] dietary guidelines warn of the potential dangers many individuals face from moderate drinking."

Initially, the ATF was leaning toward approving the new label in some form. Last month, AFT director John Magaw wrote HHS that he considered the new labels to be within the department's guidelines as "directional," that is, directing the consumer to the government or to their physicians for information.

But John Eisenberg, HHS's acting assistant secretary for health, replied he was "deeply concerned" that the public would construe the new label as encouraging consumption of alcoholic beverages. He asked ATF to delay a decision until more information is gathered about how the public might interpret the new message.

Joan Bernstein, director of the Bureau of Consumer Protection at the FTC, offered to help the ATF in researching what messages consumers actually take from the new label. "In our experience, consumers often understand advertising messages in a different way than was intended," she says.

Now, a spokeswoman from the ATF says the issue is still under consideration.

The storm over the label caught the Wine Institute by surprise. Last month, it had prepared a draft press statement hailing "the significant regulatory breakthrough." Now, De Luca says, "I'm not sure if it's closer to resolution."

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