Bottle Battle

Article excerpt

The latest fight over wine labels is part of the ongoing struggle between wets and drys.

Since 1989, every bottle of beer, wine, and liquor sold in the United States has carried a two-part government warning that is by now almost as familiar as the bar code: "(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."

Soon you may start to notice a new sort of label on wine bottles. "To learn the health effects of wine consumption," the proposed label says, "send for the Federal Government's Dietary Guidelines for Americans." If you like to be lectured, or you simply can't get enough of the thrilling prose generated by government-appointed committees, you can get a look at the guidelines by writing to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion or by visiting its Web site; addresses for both are helpfully provided.

But Strom Thurmond would prefer that you didn't. In fact, the Republican senator from South Carolina, who sponsored the legislation that brought us the surgeon general's warnings about drinking and pregnancy, drinking and driving, and drinking and health, was said to be "absolutely furious" when he heard that the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (BATF) planned to let wineries mention the Dietary Guidelines on their labels.

What is so subversive about the federal government's own nutritional advice? Thurmond objects to two sentences in a discussion of alcohol that is otherwise unrelentingly negative: 1) "Alcoholic beverages have been used to enhance the enjoyment of meals by many societies throughout human history." 2) "Current evidence suggests that moderate drinking is associated with a lower risk for coronary heart disease in some individuals."

Although both of those statements are verifiably true, Thurmond worries that acknowledging any positive aspect to drinking will contribute to alcoholism. It's the sort of attitude you might expect from a Southern teetotaler who is old enough to be a paleoprohibitionist. What's surprising is that Thurmond's position is echoed by so many people who claim to speak in the name of science and public health.

Public health may be blind to the pleasure that people get from drinking, but a discipline aimed at minimizing morbidity and mortality has to take into account the large body of evidence that moderate alcohol consumption reduces the risk of heart disease and prolongs life. Beginning in the 1980s with the famous Framingham study, epidemiologists discovered that alcohol is good for the cardiovascular system. It combats atherosclerotic buildup in the blood vessels, which eventually results in the blockage characteristic of coronary artery disease - by far the leading killer of both men and women in this country. Because they are less prone to coronary artery disease, moderate drinkers live longer than abstainers.

Despite this discovery, public health information about alcohol in the United States continues to be almost uniformly negative. As a result, having learned about alcohol from grade school on, American students still don't appreciate the difference between hazardous and beneficial drinking. Seven in 10 high school seniors disapprove of adults having "one or two drinks nearly every day." Yet this is just the sort of drinking that is associated with greater longevity in the epidemiological studies. (Such a pattern also avoids the dangerous aspects of the drinking binges that are typical among high school and college students.)

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which are produced jointly by the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), originally reflected the federal government's general tendency to portray drinking as something to be avoided. …