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Attempt to block health labels on alcohol begins in Congress

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WASHINGTON (BP)–The U.S. Senate’s senior member is taking on a federal agency in an attempt to reverse its approval of labels that encourage people to learn about wine’s health effects, which the government says include a lower risk of heart disease.
Sen. Strom Thurmond, R.-S.C., introduced legislation Feb. 22 that would rescind a decision by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms to authorize two new health messages requested by the wine industry. The bottle labels, approved Feb. 5, encourage consumers to consult either a doctor or the federal Dietary Guidelines for Americans to learn about the “health effects of wine consumption.”
Since 1996, the dietary guidelines have included language suggesting “moderate drinking is associated with a lower risk for coronary heart disease in some individuals.” While the guidelines mention the health dangers from drinking in excess, they also say many societies have used alcoholic beverages “to enhance the enjoyment of meals.”
The BATF’s decision was “irresponsible and constitutes poor public policy,” Thurmond said in a statement prepared for introduction of his three-bill package. It will “escalate the problems of alcohol abuse,” he said.
It is expected to open the door for other alcohol companies to apply for similar labels. While some beer breweries have chosen not to seek such labels, several liquor companies have signaled their intention to attach health labels to their products, Thurmond said.
The legislation by Thurmond, who is 96 years old and was first elected to the Senate in 1954, also would increase the tax on wine and would transfer the authority on labeling alcoholic beverages from the Treasury Department, which includes the BATF, to the Department of Health and Human Services. Revenue from the tax would fund a trust committed to the prevention and treatment of alcohol-related problems.
Some religious and health organizations also criticized the BATF decision.
“I wonder how the alcohol industry intends to protect itself from liability when people who use their ‘snake oil’ to cure what ails them end up as hopeless alcoholics,” said Barrett Duke of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. “The alcohol industry is walking a thin tightrope from which the tobacco industry has already fallen. In their quest for more money, the alcohol industry may be the next to fall. May it not take too many more destroyed lives before the fall comes.
“While the alcohol industry intends to promote the health benefits of low to moderate alcohol consumption, I hope that they will come clean and also warn people that their drug is addictive and that any amount can be dangerous to one’s health and safety if used in connection with any activity,” said Duke, whose specialties for the ERLC include alcohol issues. The ERLC advocates abstinence from alcohol.
The Center for Science in the Public Interest, a Washington-based health-advocacy organization that recommends people limit their alcohol consumption to one or two drinks a day, expressed its disappointment in the action. “Some consumers may interpret ‘health effect’ as ‘health benefit’ and end up drinking more wine than they should,” CSPI said in a written statement.
Alcohol, CSPI said, is the third leading cause of death in the country and can cause various forms of cancer, cirrhosis of the liver, hemorrhagic strokes and birth defects.
The BATF’s action came less than two weeks before it was revealed an advisory panel has recommended alcohol be designated a “known human carcinogen” in the ninth edition of the federal government’s Report on Carcinogens. The news was reported in the Feb. 17 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association.
Alcoholic beverages already contain health and safety warning labels, an effort championed by Thurmond in the 1980s.
“Since the implementation of these warning labels, the wine industry has been determined to undermine their effectiveness,” Thurmond said. “Through a vigorous lobbying and marketing campaign, the wine industry has enticed the public with the assurance that alcohol consumption is healthy.”
The “passive complicity of Treasury and [BATF} is unacceptable,” he said.
BATF officials said they modified the labels but could not reject them totally. “Under existing law, [BATF] can only deny labeling statements if they are false or misleading,” said Ed Knight, general counsel for the Department of Treasury, in a written statement. BATF decided the labels met the required standards because they make no health claims, Knight said.
The wine industry will fight Thurmond’s legislation, Wine Institute President John De Luca said, according to The New York Times. “We can argue the merits if it comes to that,” De Luca said.