The influential South Carolina Republican has requested the inspectors general of the departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services to investigate whether the San Francisco-based Wine Institute conspired with government officials in those agencies to modify federal policy to promote the use of alcohol.
In early February, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms approved the use of new wine bottle labels endorsed by the Wine Institute. These voluntary messages direct consumers to consult the federal guidelines or their family doctors for information on the potential health benefits of alcohol. Thurmond, who was instrumental in the 1980s campaign to put the current health-warning labels on alcohol, has been strongly opposed to the new labels.
In retaliation, the senator introduced three bills last week that would prohibit labels referring to wine's health benefits, turn control of alcohol regulation over to the more restrictive Food and Drug Administration and hike excise taxes on wine to fund research into alcoholism and alcohol-related illnesses.
Thurmond objects to the fact that the 1995 federal dietary guidelines' section on alcohol differs from the 1990 guidelines, which advised that "drinking (alcoholic beverages) has no net health benefit" and "their consumption is not recommended." The latest edition indicates that moderate alcohol consumption could lower the risk of coronary heart disease in some individuals, but also includes in great detail the drawbacks of drinking, as well as a list of who should not drink. It concludes with the advice, "If you drink alcoholic beverages, do so in moderation, with meals, and when consumption does not put you or others at risk." (For the complete dietary guidelines, go to www.usda.gov/fcs/cnpp.htm.)
"I am interested in protecting the sanctity of public policy and in making certain that the government does not get in the business of promoting or endorsing a product that has been linked to some very serious health problems," stated Thurmond. "If people want to drink wine and other alcoholic beverages, that is their business, but they should not base their decision to do so on information that in all likelihood was manipulated by the wine industry."
In recent years, extensive medical research has shown that moderate alcohol consumption can reduce heart disease and may also have other health benefits. The Wine Institute issued a statement that it, along with other organizations, had participated in open public comment sessions on the dietary guidelines and that "the changes in federal nutrition policy [Thurmond] deplores actually derive from the latest scientific research findings and not from 'political subterfuge' as he charges. It is appropriate that the American public be directed to that emerging body of science."
The Department of Health and Human Services indicated that it would take about two weeks before a decision is made on whether and how to proceed with an investigation.
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