In February, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, which is part of the Department of Treasury, approved two labels that alluded to the potential health effects of moderate wine consumption. Soon thereafter, Thurmond, a longtime opponent of the wine industry and the author of the current health warning label on wine bottles, placed a hold on the Treasury nominations. Such a move is one of the most powerful weapons senators can use to block executive branch appointments.
Thurmond had stated his opposition to the health effects labels throughout 1998 and was taken by surprise when they were finally approved in early February. The labels do not make any outright health claims, which is prohibited under federal regulations; rather they direct consumers to consult their doctor or the federal dietary guidelines for more information about the health effects of moderate wine consumption.
In his April 21 letter to Thurmond, Rubin stated that the BATF will issue a notice of proposed rule-making -- the mechanism by which the federal bureaucracy states its intention to write new regulations -- regarding any future health-related labels on wine bottles. However, the two labels already approved will not be affected.
Rubin did leave the door open to a future ban, with an important proviso. His letter stated, The notice will ask for public comment on ATFs existing policy relating to health-related statements on alcohol beverage labels. The notice will also ask whether the negative health consequences of alcohol consumption or abuse disqualify these products entirely from entitlement to any health-related statements. Assuming the appropriate factual and constitutional predicates, ATF would then have the authority to prohibit directional health statements such as those on the recently approved labels.
Rubin noted that such a ban would have to be supported by enough documentation to withstand challenges that it violates constitutional free speech guarantees. The current directional labels were approved by the BATF because they did not continue any misleading factual statements or health claims and thus could not be denied.
Apparently, the labels that have already been approved wont be affected, said Thurmond spokesman John De Crosta. We are going to continue to be vigilant about what Treasury does and what the industry does. Nobody should take this as an indication that the senator is going to redirect his attention in this matter.
For more on the label issue:
Carmenet Among First to Put Health-Effects Label on Bottles
Strom Thurmond Challenges Wine's Health Claims Again
Senator Pledges to Raise Taxes on Wine, Ban Health Messages
Two Powerful Senators Stand in Way of New Wine Label