SACRAMENTO — The Deukmejian Administration, in a move that would help the liquor industry to avoid putting warning labels on alcoholic beverage containers, is proposing instead that signs be posted in liquor stores, bars and restaurants to warn that drinking during pregnancy can cause birth defects.
In a controversial draft regulation designed to implement Proposition 65, the state Health and Welfare Agency has adopted the liquor industry position that bottlers should not be required to put warning labels on beer, wine and liquor containers.
The proposed rule--which is opposed by a variety of consumer and health organizations--would spell out in state regulations an understanding negotiated between retailers and the liquor industry. Under the informal agreement, the makers of alcoholic beverages would take all responsibility for posting warning signs wherever their products are sold. Warnings would also be printed on restaurant menus or on table-top signs.
"The regulation reflects the input of the people who are going to be regulated," said Robin Shapiro, an attorney for the Beer Institute. "I think there's no question we would rather have this than labels."
On Oct. 1, Gov. George Deukmejian formally placed alcoholic beverages on the Proposition 65 list of chemicals known to the state to cause birth defects and other reproductive harm.
Variety of Fetal Deformities
Medical experts say drinking alcohol during pregnancy can cause a variety of fetal deformities, including mental retardation, growth deficiencies and congenital heart defects.
By placing alcohol on the list, Deukmejian made beer, wine and liquor subject to the warning requirements of the anti-toxics initiative, which was overwhelmingly approved by the voters in 1986.
But precisely what type of warning that must be provided by the manufacturers of alcoholic beverages is subject to considerable dispute between the liquor industry and consumer advocates.
The Consumers Union, the March of Dimes and a number of other groups contend that Proposition 65 requires that warnings be placed on each alcoholic beverage container. They also say this would be the most effective way of alerting women to the danger of drinking while pregnant.
A coalition headed by the Consumers Union plans to file a "healthy babies petition" with the Health and Welfare Agency today, calling on the state to require warning labels on all alcoholic beverage containers.
"To be blunt, when the Administration proposes posters over labels, it is difficult to believe they have any other reason in mind than doing what the liquor industry has asked for," charged Jim Shultz, a Consumers Union lobbyist.
The liquor industry is vehemently opposed to putting the kind of warning labels on its products that have been required on cigarette packages since 1965. For two years, liquor lobbyists have successfully fought legislation in Sacramento that would have required warning labels on alcoholic beverage containers.
'Clear and Reasonable'
Under Proposition 65, businesses must warn the public of any exposure to a chemical on the list of those known to the state government to cause cancer or birth defects. Such warnings, according to the initiative, must be "clear and reasonable."
Proposition 65 also requires that state regulations implementing the initiative "shall to the extent practicable" put the burden of warning the public on the manufacturer of a hazardous product, rather than on the distributor.
However, the regulation proposed by the Health and Welfare Agency for alcohol says that posting warning signs in liquor stores and bars, or printing warning notices on menus in restaurants, would meet the requirements of Proposition 65.
Under the proposed rule, the signs would have to measure at least 10 inches by 10 inches and be posted within 10 feet of the location where alcoholic beverages are displayed. The signs would say in inch-high lettering: "WARNING: Beer, wine and other alcoholic beverages are known to the state of California to cause birth defects."
Posted Signs Acceptable
Health and Welfare Undersecretary Thomas E. Warriner, who is in charge of implementing Proposition 65, argued that the posting of warning signs is acceptable under the initiative and would provide a satisfactory way of notifying the public of the danger of drinking during pregnancy.
"The proposition does not require labels," Warriner said. "I'm satisfied that our signs give a good, strong, clear message. Everyone is going to know that alcoholic beverages cause birth defects."
Warriner acknowledged that in drafting the regulation, he drew from proposals submitted by the retailers and the liquor industry.
"I've gotten materials from them suggesting that approach. Some of it is in the regulations," he said. "We're trying to allow an arrangement to work."
Roles Spelled Out