SACRAMENTO — Legislation to require health warning labels on alcoholic beverage containers--strongly backed by more than 60 consumer and health groups--was defeated at its first committee hearing Wednesday after liquor industry lobbyists attacked the proposal as "unnecessarily threatening."
The bill, by Sen. Gary Hart (D-Santa Barbara), was aimed at warning pregnant women about the dangers of alcohol-related birth defects. It failed on a 3-0 vote, two short of the five vote majority needed for passage in the Senate Health and Human Services Committee.
It was the second defeat in two years for the measure, and, as before, it failed without a single vote being cast against it. Instead, after nearly two hours of divisive debate, the majority of the committee members chose not to vote at all.
The liquor industry, which launched a massive drive against the bill, instead offered a "voluntary educational program" to inform pregnant women about the possible dangers of drinking. But under strong questioning, industry lobbyists refused to say how much money would be committed to the effort or even when it could begin.
Patricia Schneider, a Wine Institute lobbyist who raised the "education" proposal as a trade-off for rejecting the bill, told the committee that the idea of a warning label is "particularly offensive" to the liquor industry.
"We are not rat poison," she declared. "Ours is not a product whose integrity needs to be attacked this way."
Hart, however, said the defeat had less to do with the arguments presented than the political influence of an industry that contributes generously to legislative campaigns.
"It's obvious they have power in the Legislature," Hart said after it became clear that his bill was headed for defeat.
Several of the major groups that lobby on behalf of the wine, beer and distilled spirits industries gave nearly $700,000 to elected state officials for last November's elections, according to Legitech, a private bill and contributions tracking service.
The major problem that was to be addressed by the warning labels is fetal alcohol syndrome, a cluster of birth defects that occurs in one to three births in every 1,000, resulting in low birth weight, physical deformities and sometimes mental retardation.
Medical experts disagree over how much alcohol can trigger the syndrome, but some physicians say even a few drinks during pregnancy can create a problem.
"It is clear there is no known safe level of alcohol exposure during pregnancy," said Dr. Ann Streissguth, a top researcher in the field and professor of medicine at the University of Washington. "The problem is that by the time mothers get to a doctor, it is often too late."
The alcohol industry takes issue with the conclusion and has produced studies of its own indicating that moderate alcohol use may not trigger birth defects.
But the debate before the committee focused less on the problem and more on whether warning labels would deter pregnant women from drinking.
Supporters of the measure cited the warning labels that have been required for cigarettes since the mid-1960s as evidence that such efforts can work.
Jim Shultz, lobbyist for Consumers Union, which supported the liquor warning bill, noted that smoking among Californians has decreased 30% since the warning labels were put into effect.
"If we prevent some small fraction of the cases (of birth defects), even 10 or 20, isn't it worth the burden on the industry?" he asked the committee.
Donald Shea, lobbyist for the Beer Institute, declared flatly that warning labels do not work.
"Awareness levels (about alcohol-related birth defects) are so high that there is little reason to believe that warning labels would provide any benefit whatsoever," Shea said.
"Given the success of public education programs to date, it is highly probable that it is precisely the abusive drinker who remains at risk."
Heavy drinkers, Shea added, would not be convinced by warning labels.
"The message it would convey is inaccurate, unnecessarily threatening and misleading," Shea said.
On the local level, both Los Angeles city and county have ordinances requiring bars and restaurants to post signs warning of possible health dangers where liquor is sold. The San Diego County Board of Supervisors passed a similar measure in February.
The liquor industry's hopes of staving off further regulatory action is embodied in the educational proposal presented during Wednesday's hearing. It contained few specifics, and drew little praise from committee members.
"We had a bill (on warning labels) last year," said Sen. Herschel Rosenthal (D-Los Angeles), "and nothing was done about it. Now we get this today when we are discussing this bill. There is something wrong with that."
Shultz of Consumers Union described the industry's last-minute proposal as a "baloney initiative," and an attempt to "pull a rabbit out of their hat."
"This is precisely what the alcoholic beverage industry did in 1980 to convince Congress not to enact a federal warning label bill," Shultz added.
Voting for the bill were Sens. Rosenthal, Diane Watson (D-Los Angeles) and Joseph B. Montoya (D-Whittier). Not voting at all were Sens. Dan McCorquodale (D-San Jose), Henry J. Mello (D-Watsonville), Art Torres (D-Los Angeles), Edward R. Royce (R-Anaheim), William Campbell (R-Hacienda Heights) and Ken Maddy (R-Fresno). Maddy was not present for the hearing.