Beer, wine and spirits manufacturers are quickly marshaling resources to defeat a move in the U.S. Senate that would require warning labels on all alcoholic beverages sold in this country.
Trade groups representing this multibillion dollar industry are now lobbying Congress to prevent the prospect of adorning packages with health risk disclosures similar to those carried by cigarettes.
The proposal is part of legislation that would continue federal authorization and funding for the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism and the National Institute on Drug Abuse. The measure, co-sponsored by Sens. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.) and Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), was recently approved by the Labor and Human Resources Committee and awaits further consideration on the Senate floor.
Under the plan, one of four different warnings would be displayed on each container. The selected statements discuss the dangers of consuming alcohol before driving, while under medication or during pregnancy. In addition, there is another cautionary phrase stating that alcohol "can increase the risk of developing hypertension, liver disease and cancer."
The controversial provision comes at a time when the alcoholic beverage industry is also under pressure from some consumer advocacy groups and federal officials to adopt ingredient labeling, pay higher excise taxes and disclose the presence of sulfites, a clarifying agent that can cause severe reactions in asthmatics and others allergic to the ingredient. There have also been proposals to ban beer and wine advertisements from radio and television.
The group behind many of these measures, which the industry views as severely punitive, is the Center for Science in the Public Interest. In the past, the Washington-based organization has been described as militantly anti-alcohol and neo-prohibitionist by industry sources.
A representative of the group said the organization's activities do not target alcohol sales, per se.
"We advocate a public health agenda that speaks to reducing alcohol-related problems," spokesman George A. Hacker said. "By placing warning labels before the public, we will reinforce the other messages about the dangers of drinking being distributed by public health groups, schools and the government. And the information will be there so people can make informed decisions about drinking practices, because today that information is not available."
Hacker acknowledged that alcoholic beverages are not as unilaterally dangerous as cigarettes, but are often advertised irresponsibly.
"There are a good many situations in which alcohol is promoted (by advertisements) that are dangerous such as while at the beach swimming, while boating and a good many activities (such as sports) that involve driving to get there," Hacker said.
Critics of the proposal say that a warning label is an ineffective means of informing consumers about the dangers of alcohol abuse.
"A warning label will not accomplish what its supporters hope it will--which is an educated consumer who is aware that excessive consumption is inappropriate," said Donald B. Shea, a spokesman for the Beer Institute in Washington. "Frankly, I think that people already know that fact about alcohol. And you can't give the whole story in a single sentence."
Warning label opponents also frequently refer to medical literature that seems to indicate that moderate alcohol consumption may provide some health benefits, such as a lower risk of cardiovascular disease.
"There is a long body of research and medical literature that states moderate consumption is beneficial and salutary," said John De Luca, president of the Wine Institute in San Francisco. "Just think of all the products in daily life that, if abused, could cause negative consequences. Then decide how many you would have to put a warning label on from the razor you shave with to the ham, eggs and coffee you have for breakfast. . . . There is a distinction between moderate and abusive behavior that is not addressed with a warning label."
De Luca also criticized the Center for Science and stated that the group often provides a superficial treatment of complex issues and campaigns by "press release."
A vote on the legislation containing the warning label provision could come before the Labor Day holiday recess. However, there is also a possibility that the Senate may fund the drug and alcohol abuse agencies without approving the warning label. Furthermore, the House would also have to approve the legislation before it was enacted.
Dodging a Boomerang--An odd twist in the U.S. Senate deliberations is that the Center for Science is using a phrase championed by Joseph E. Seagram & Sons Inc. in its campaign for alcohol warning labels.
Part of the advocacy group's literature assembled in support of the cautionary labeling states that such a mandatory program will reinforce public awareness of the "alcohol is alcohol" message.