When labeling means a thesis

Federal judge Thomas Jackson holds more than the fate of the world's most valuable company - Microsoft - in his hands. The District of Columbia judge also has a case on his docket dealing with labels on alcoholic-beverage containers. It doesn't sound so dramatic as the antitrust case of the computer software giant. But the "booze" case could touch the lives of many Americans.

Just as tobacco products must carry warning labels, producers of beer, wine, or spirits have to label their products. The "Government Warning" cautions pregnant women that alcoholic beverages carry the risk of birth defects. It warns that alcohol impairs the ability to drive a car or operate machinery, and may cause health problems.

But some recent medical research has indicated that "moderate" drinking may have health benefits for people 35 and older. Though the studies include caveats and their methodology is questioned by some experts, the research delighted the alcoholic-beverage industry. They would love to trumpet the findings on labels and in advertising. But the Treasury's Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (BATF) bans any mention of health benefits on labels and in ads.

In 1996, the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI), a Washington public interest group favoring free enterprise and limited government, challenged the BATF's prohibition on First Amendment grounds. It impaired free speech, the group charged.

To avoid an extended trial, both sides have now asked for a summary judgment, expected in a month or so.

On the other side, the nation's health officials oppose any health claims. They were backed by Senators Robert Byrd (D) of West Virginia and Strom Thurmond (R) of South Carolina. Mr. Thurmond introduced a bill a year ago that would have expanded the current warning label to say drinkers were at risk for alcoholism, hypertension, and breast cancer. It didn't get anywhere.

Then last month, the Treasury and its BATF approved two wine labels. One urged buyers to "consult your family doctor about the health effects of wine consumption." The other suggested sending for the government's "Dietary Guidelines."

The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), a Washington group that focuses on alcoholic-beverage issues, says these labels might mislead consumers. The CEI wasn't pleased, either, with the Treasury's walk down the middle. "The First Amendment allows more than that," says Ben Lieberman, a CEI analyst. And so the CEI's lawsuit continues.

Senator Thurmond, also unhappy, introduced legislation to raise taxes on wine, reverse the Treasury's label decision, and move label jurisdiction to the Department of Health and Human Services.

George Hacker, director of an alcohol policies project at CSPI, says Treasury "doesn't deserve" jurisdiction. Its field is raising revenues, he adds.

Perhaps the solution is that alcohol purchasers be given a sheet each time with a fuller outline of what is known about alcohol problems. After all, the Treasury, in banning industry health claims, said no label could adequately present a "balanced" view.

Here we sample some studies done for the National Bureau of Economic Research in Cambridge, Mass., and other research:

*A 10 percent hike in the tax on beer would lower the number of severely abused children by about 132,000 nationwide. A 10 percent jump in the cost of alcohol would reduce the abuse of wives by husbands by 31 to 35 percent.

*Alcohol advertising increases auto fatalities. Alcohol consumption, motor vehicle deaths, and liver cirrhosis mortality are lower in nations that ban ads.

*Alcohol is addictive. The alcoholic-beverage industry depends considerably on heavy drinkers. If the top 10 percent of drinkers reduced their consumption to that of the next 10 percent, sales of alcohol would drop by more than one-third.

*The annual cost to the US of alcohol abuse and alcoholism is $100 billion and 100,000 deaths.

*David R. Francis is senior economic correspondent for the Monitor.

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