The wine industry wants it known that a glass now and then can be good for the heart, but federal health officials are worried that proposed new wording on bottle labels might encourage excessive drinking.
Despite the criticisms, officials at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms have signaled they are likely to endorse the labels, which would be included on both domestic and imported wines sold in this country.
The Health and Human Services Department has been urging ATF to delay approval of the labels, which refer to the “health effects” of “moderate” wine drinking.
“The proposal under consideration is a thinly disguised attempt to make an affirmative health claim,” said Dr. John M. Eisenberg, acting assistant secretary for health.
“I am deeply concerned that your approval of the label statements in their current form would be construed by the public as encouraging the consumption of alcoholic beverages,” Eisenberg said in a letter to ATF Director John Magaw.
Wine labels already contain warnings that women should not drink during pregnancy and that alcoholic beverages can impair driving and cause health problems. But they say nothing about numerous health studies indicating that moderate alcohol intake can reduce risk of heart disease in some people.
To the current warning, a label proposed by the San Francisco-based Wine Institute would add: “To learn the health effects of moderate wine consumption, send for the federal government’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans.” It gives a mailing address and an Internet Web site.
A second proposal would say: “The proud people who make this wine encourage you to consult your family doctor about the health effects of wine enjoyment.”
Wine Institute President John DeLuca said the government guidelines discuss both the risks and benefits of drinking alcohol - and he says the proposed wording makes no claims that wine is good for you.
“We’re not saying health benefits, we’re saying health effects,” he said. “We’re not for a blanket endorsement. We think there is a scientific balance struck in the guidelines, and we should be allowed to disseminate them.”
DeLuca acknowledged there would be “some marketing benefits” to the labels. But he said the vintners’ true purpose is providing people with a way to obtain government-endorsed information that wine is not all bad.
Any ads by wine makers would not be permitted to go beyond the careful wording on the labels and could make no direct health claims.
“The anti-alcohol movement has tried to depict us as no different than cigarettes or heroin,” he said. “We want to improve our image.”
So far, ATF’s Magaw has rejected the argument that the labels make any improper claims about health and drinking. In a recent letter to HHS, he indicated that his agency was nearing a decision and would likely approve the change.
“They merely direct the consumer to a qualified source of information regarding the health effects of alcohol consumption,” Magaw wrote. “Both statements are neutral. Neither statement characterizes health benefits or risks.”
ATF’s apparent willingness to endorse the labels has outraged some anti-alcohol and health groups, who want studies done to determine how consumers might perceive the new wording.
The labels might recall to a consumer’s mind positive publicity about the link between alcohol consumption and reduced heart disease, but not about alcohol’s negative links to cancer, cirrhosis of the liver, car crashes and violence, said Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest.
“Nobody’s going to send away for the dietary guidelines or talk to their doctor - that’s irrational,” Jacobson said. “The labels will help create a climate that alcoholic beverages are not a problem.”
DeLuca maintained, however, that what vintners really want is a “cultural development” that would make attitudes toward wine in the United States more like those in much of Europe, where wine is regularly consumed with meals, even by young children.
“This is only an educational tool,” he said.