In two days, on Saturday, the federal government's mandatory warning label will begin appearing on bottles of wine, beer and distilled spirits.
Ordered by Congress last fall, the warning will state: "Government Warning. (1) According to the Surgeon General, women should not drink alcoholic beverages during pregnancy because of the risk of birth defects. (2) Consumption of alcoholic beverages impairs your ability to drive a car or operate machinery and may cause health problems."
Alcohol, it is clear, is a drug that if misused can cause damage to the human body, including cirrhosis of the liver, fetal alcohol syndrome and other maladies.
Wine contains alcohol, and thus can be abused, just like any other drug. Yet the warning statement mandated for wine has a number of wine lovers, including producers and those in wine and gourmet societies, upset.
They say studies show that wine reacts differently in the body from other alcoholic beverages and that there are actually benefits from regular, moderate amounts of wine that may not be obtained by consuming other alcoholic beverages. They say an otherwise benign beverage is being tarred with the same "booze" brush by irresponsible anti-alcohol groups.
Most of the health groups that speak out against alcohol abuse usually ignore the scientific evidence that shows wine to be less deleterious than some of the other alcoholic beverages. They lump all alcoholic beverages into the same pot.
And this reluctance on the part of the anti-alcohol forces to mention the positive aspects of wine has prompted a number of prominent physicians to come forward more vocally than they have in the past, to set the record straight. Another reason these doctors have come forward with a defense of moderate wine consumption is the new warning label that seems to tell only one side of the story.
Among those doctors are three San Francisco physicians--Dr. Paul Scholten, associate clinical professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of California School of Medicine; Dr. Keith Marton, chairman of the Department of Medicine at Pacific Presbyterian Medical Center, and Dr. David Whitten, chief of the Emergency Department at Kaiser Permanente Medical Center
"The beneficial effects of moderate consumption of wine, both in nutrition and in satisfactory living, far outweigh any of the dangers of acute alcoholism," said Scholten.
He said one of the two warnings listed on the new label addresses Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS), a subject he has researched. FAS occurs when a woman consumes large amounts of alcohol during pregnancy. It can produce babies with symptoms that include slow growth, central nervous system impairment and mental retardation.
Scholten explored FAS extensively a decade ago and said, "There is enormous publicity given to Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. And while no respectable obstetrician would advise his or her pregnant patients to consume any alcohol at all, small amounts of wine consumed with meals during pregnancy have not been shown to cause any fetal damage."
Scholten, referring to a scientific paper he wrote in 1982, said, "For women who consume two glasses of wine with meals, no evidence exists that the full syndrome develops. We see that only in true drunkards and binge drinkers. Two glasses of wine per day has not been shown to have any deleterious effect. That would be two four-ounce glasses of dry table wine of no more than 12% alcohol."
More than a year ago, a widely reported study indicated that women who were even moderate drinkers of alcoholic beverages ran a higher risk of breast cancer. Then, subsequent studies cast doubt on that report.
In a recent speech, Marton said that studies linking breast cancer and alcohol consumption were inconclusive, but even if they were directly linked, he said, the cancer risk in moderate consumers of wine would rise from a 10% chance to a 16% chance that a woman would get breast cancer sometime in her life.
And he said that the evidence shows that moderate consumers of alcoholic beverages run "a nearly 50% lower risk of heart disease, which is this nation's No. 1 killer." He asked rhetorically if abstention was better than moderate consumption in moderation.
Curiously, wine may also contain at least two anti-cancer compounds.
Health and nutrition author Jean Carper, in her book "The Food Pharmacy," quotes Dr. Hans Stich, a cancer expert, as saying that red wine contains Gallic acid and that in research he conducted, Gallic acid "prevented different carcinogens from inducing chromosome aberrations."
Another benefit for wine was announced earlier this year when Terrance Leighton, professor of microbiology at the University of California at Berkeley, said he had discovered in some red wines the compound called quercetin, which is known to be a potent anti-cancer agent.
It should be noted that quercetin also is found, in much higher doses than in wine, in such foods as garlic, onions, broccoli and squash.