Less than a year after first approving wine labels that direct consumers toward information on the health effects of moderate alcohol consumption, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms has put a hold on any new labels carrying such messages.
The federal agency announced late last week that it will be holding public hearings to discuss health claims in the labeling and advertising of alcoholic beverages. Until those hearings and subsequent rule-making proceedings have been completed, the BATF has suspended action on any new applications for label approvals.
The hearings, which have not yet been scheduled, are being organized in response to concerns voiced by Sen. Strom Thurmond, R-S.C., and some government officials, who have suggested that consumers could misperceive the labels as a government endorsement of alcohol consumption.
Last February, the BATF approved two voluntary statements on wine labels that refer consumers to either their family doctors or the federal government's "Dietary Guidelines for Americans" for information about the potential health effects of moderate alcohol consumption. The statements were proposed by the Wine Institute, a San Francisco-based winery advocacy group, and the Coalition for Truth and Balance, an informal winery group spearheaded by Patrick Campbell, owner of Laurel Glen Vineyard in Sonoma County.
Many vintners hailed the BATF's approval of the labels as a victory, allowing them to point (albeit indirectly) to mounting scientific evidence of wine's potential health benefits. However, neither of the approved statements makes any outright health claims, which are prohibited under federal regulations. Nor do they replace the warning labels, first put on wine bottles 10 years ago, that advise pregnant women not to drink and state that alcohol can impair the ability to operate cars or machinery.
Thurmond -- a long-time opponent of the alcoholic beverage industry who was responsible for those warning labels -- strongly rebuked the BATF for its February action. At the time, he introduced legislation to ban health messages on wine bottles and raise taxes on wine; however, the bills were not voted on this year. In addition, Thurmond held up three key Treasury Department appointments, extracting a promise from then-Secretary of the Treasury Robert Rubin to re-examine the issue of putting health-related statements on wine labels.
On Oct. 25, the BATF fulfilled that promise, issuing a notice of proposed rule-making, by which the federal bureaucracy states its intention to write new regulations. The notice seeks written comments on whether "the negative consequences of alcohol consumption or abuse disqualify these products entirely from entitlement to any health-related statements" and whether "health-related statements on alcohol beverage labels and advertising directing consumers to sources of information, such as the U.S. Government Dietary Guidelines, are misleading and whether ATF should continue to approve such statements."
Thurmond spokesman John De Crosta hailed the suspension of new label approvals as "a responsible move." He said, "Certainly, seeing more of these directional-type labels is not something we supported or thought was good policy. With the proposed rule-making out there, it makes sense to wait and see if there's a change in policy."
Since last February, the BATF has conditionally approved 98 health-effects labels for a total of 17 companies. These can continue to be used for the time being, but could be revoked following the rulemaking process.
Nonetheless, Wine Institute president John De Luca said he welcomes the hearings as an opportunity to educate the public. "We're exercising our First Amendment right of free speech and saying the public is entitled to know the facts," he said. "We see this as a major opportunity to present the science as an educational tool, not as a marketing tool. We propose to present the science and avoid a century of polemics on the subject."
Written comments can be submitted until Feb. 22, 2000, to: Chief Regulations Division, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, P.O. Box 50221, Washington, D.C. 20091-0221, Attn: Notice No. 884. E-mail comments can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org. E-mail must reference notice 884, include the writer's name and mailing address, and be no more than three printed pages in length.
For a history of the debate over health-effects labels:
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