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Labels will encourage drinking, ERLC’s Duke tells federal panel

WASHINGTON (BP)–Alcohol labels that suggest people learn about the health impact of drinking wine “serve no other purpose than to encourage people to drink and to make drinking a lifestyle activity,” a Southern Baptist specialist on alcohol and other drugs told a federal panel.

Barrett Duke, vice president of research for the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, criticized new wine labels in testimony before officials of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. Supporters and opponents of the labels testified before the panel during April 25-26 hearings in Washington.

The bureau endorsed two health-related statements in 1999, and 17 different companies received approval to include the statements in labels on 99 different wines. The ATF-approved statements suggest consumers consult either a physician or the federal government’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans to learn about the “health effects of wine consumption.”

Those guidelines, which were last published by the Department of Agriculture in 1995, suggest if people drink alcohol they do so in moderation. They cite health problems caused by too much drinking but also say: “Current evidence suggests that moderate drinking is associated with a lower risk for coronary heart disease in some individuals.”

Duke, whose areas of specialty for the ERLC include substance abuse, said the statements directing people to consult a doctor or the guidelines give the impression the health claims are being endorsed.

“The average person would not conclude that the alcohol industry would direct people to information damaging to their claim,” Duke told the panel. “Consequently, the average person will assume a doctor would agree that drinking alcohol is good for one’s health. Such a response by the consumer undermines the precautions supposedly implied by the directional statement.”

In addition, the “entire concept of alcohol as a health aid is ludicrous,” he said. “I believe these health claims will create a new group of victims. The inclusion of [health-related statements] on alcohol beverages will encourage behavior that is destructive to a certain segment of the population. Consequently, some who accept the snake-oil claims that alcohol will benefit their health will be encouraged to try alcohol for the first time and become hopelessly addicted to it. Their only consolation will be the knowledge that at least their hearts are healthy, while other parts of their body, mind and spirit are diseased, dulled and crushed, and their personal and family lives are ruined.”

The health claims themselves are misleading, Duke said. “There are millions of people who, for well-documented reasons, should not drink alcohol under any circumstances, including drinking alcohol for their health,” he said.

They also encourage irresponsibility, he said. Encouragements to drink alcohol for health reasons tell people to “let the drug take responsibility for their health rather than taking responsibility for it themselves,” Duke said.

The new labels have the potential to undermine the efforts of Christian and other faith communities, he said. Thousands of Southern Baptists are supporting a campaign to lead people to make a pledge of total abstinence from alcohol and illegal drugs, Duke said. People of faith who support abstinence “are doing what we can to reduce alcohol abuse. We ask you to do what you can by refusing to allow the inclusion of these statements on alcohol beverages,” he said.

Michael Apstein, a Boston physician who teaches at Harvard University Medical School, told the panel he favors a label referring people to consult a doctor but suggested they change the wording from “about the health effects of wine consumption” to “regarding alcohol’s effect on your health.”

ATF originally scheduled hearings in five cities, but they were canceled in three cities — Atlanta, Chicago and Dallas — because of the low number of requests to testify. The only other hearing will be held May 23-24 in San Francisco.

The bureau will accept written or e-mail comments on the subject until June 30. Information may be obtained at its Internet site, www.atf.treas.gov.