The latest group to petition the government to allow health claims on wine, beer and alcohol is the Competitive Enterprise Institute. The Washington group says current government warnings on alcohol -- that drinking is harmful to pregnant women, can impair driving and cause other health problems -- aren't fair, and the public has a right to know about possible benefits of alcohol, too.
It proposes an alternative: "There is significant evidence that moderate consumption of alcoholic beverages may reduce the risk of heart disease." The petition to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms cites scientific evidence showing that moderate drinking both reduces heart disease and decreases mortality.
"In our view there is already enough data amassed [to go ahead with a health claim rather than ask for more evidence]," says Sam Kazman, legal counsel for the Competitive Enterprise Institute.
Curiously, the largest and best-known California wine growers are sitting it out. They dropped the health claim idea when their own 1993 petition led to behind-the-scenes threats from the Food and Drug Administration to regulate liquor as a drug. Additionally, the wine industry worries about lawsuits from people who abuse alcohol.
Health claims on labels have some support from smaller growers, represented by the American Vintners Association. Several years ago, when Congress considered a tax on liquor to pay for health care, the group commissioned a study that shows moderate drinkers save the United States $1 billion annually in reduced costs associated with heart disease. The study by Lewin-VHI Inc. of Alexandria, Va., helped convince Congress to fund research into benefits of wine.
When first petitioned by California growers, the Bureau of Alcohol,Tobacco and Firearms issued a tough rejoinder, saying essentially that any health claim, even if backed by medical evidence, would be misleading because it sets forth only a partial picture. In the bureau's view, there is no label big enough to hold a balanced discussion of the health risks and benefits of alcohol.
The agency's decision this month to ask the public to comment on all the evidence comes in response to a May 10 petition by the institute.
"I don't think you'll see us making specific rules to allow health claims on labels," says Bill Earle, deputy associate director for regulation at ATF, which approves 85,000 liquor labels annually. The invitation to present medical evidence will get the science out in a cautious, balanced way, without encouraging people to drink, he says.