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NEWS ANALYSIS : Regulation Limbo: Alcohol, Nutrition and the BATF


One of Washington's most confusing regulatory doublespeaks played out recently when the federal government announced it is now accepting public comment on nutrition labeling requirements for wine, beer and spirits.

The idea--by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms--is to discover whether health-conscious consumers would be assisted in selecting a fine Cabernet Sauvignon, imported pilsener or aged Cognac by having the same little charts listing nutrients, calories and fat as those found on a cereal box.

Yet, on the same day last month, BATF issued a strong warning to the alcohol industry against making any kind of health claim on product labels about research demonstrating the purported benefits of moderate drinking in decreasing the risk of heart disease.

And, BATF states, if any such claims are permitted in the future, they will have to be balanced and contain the adverse health consequences of drinking as well.

"I don't see (the dual announcements) as a discrepancy," said Les Stanford, information officer at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms in Washington. "It is issue 'A' and issue 'B.' "

Issue A--Nutrition labels for alcohol: seems far fetched at first. Consumers don't shop for wine based on its Vitamin C content, as they might for a fruit drink. But BATF was prompted to seek comment after receiving requests from industry representatives who apparently think the public might be swayed by an extra nutrient here or there.

Among those nutrition labeling issues on which BATF would like public comment:

* Should nutrition information be displayed on alcohol beverage labels?

* As a consumer, how much extra would you be willing to pay for nutritional labels on alcohol beverages?

* How does alcohol affect the body's ability to absorb nutrients?

Issue B--Health claims on alcohol beverages: The BATF announced that it will consider regulations allowing such statements but indicated that negative information about alcohol also must be included. As it is, the agency already requires that warning labels about the dangers of fetal alcohol syndrome or drunk driving be prominent on all beer, wine and spirits containers.

"A statement that attributes positive health benefits to the moderate consumption of alcoholic beverages, even if backed up by medical evidence, may have an overall misleading effect if such statement is not properly qualified, does not give all sides of the issue, and does not outline the categories of individuals for whom any such positive effect would be outweighed by numerous negative health effects," a BATF memo stated.

Despite the seemingly ponderous requirements facing manufacturers, some have been encouraged by the agency's decision.

"BATF's announcement of proposed rule making presents a long-awaited opportunity to clarify the rules on the use of scientific and medical information in light of new research," said John De Luca, president of the San Francisco-based Wine Institute.

In the meantime, brewers, winemakers and distillers are allowed to distribute the complete text of the 1992 report from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism as promotional literature or as part of a label. The study is a cautious review of scientific literature that indicates moderate consumption may be beneficial. But even BATF concedes that it is unlikely that any alcohol beverage manufacturer will be able to get the entire 2,700-word study on a bottle or can.

"If anybody wants to put out a health claim that says, 'red wine is good for you,' then they have to put out the whole story," said BATF's Stanford. "And, in the view of some quarters, excess alcohol consumption causes many medical problems, and that is well documented."

Doesn't the presence of nutrition labeling indicate that alcohol has some health benefits? "That," Stanford said, "is a big leap."

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