Magazine article The Washington Monthly

Wine and Poses

Magazine article The Washington Monthly

Wine and Poses

Article excerpt

It was the crowning moment of American Wine Appreciation Week. On February 25, a 42-person delegation from the Wine Institute met with President Bill Clinton just outside the East Room of the White House. The group of California winemakers had come to lobby against possible "sin" taxes on alcohol meant to help pay for the administration's health care reforms.

With flash bulbs popping, Wine Institute President John A. De Luca told the 46-year-old Clinton about recent medical research revealing potential health benefits from moderate alcohol consumption. Clinton interrupted, noting appreciatively that he had "reached the age that when all this health data comes out, I want to take another glass of wine .... "Before Clinton could even finish his sentence, the group erupted in applause. The president grinned, beating his chest, thump, thump, thump, like a healthy heart.

Several days later, the president sat for an interview with MTV News correspondent Tabitha Soren. Again, Clinton deflected talk of new taxes on alcohol by touting the benefits of drinking. "At least if you use it in moderation, there's no evidence that it causes harm," said the president, who drinks infrequently. "And there's some evidence," he continued, "that wine, for example, is good for your heart if you use it in moderation ."

From the breweries of St. Louis to the wine cellars of Sonoma, the sound of popping corks and clinking glasses should have been deafening. After years of bad news about sagging consumption and inhibiting regulations, the $82-billion-a-year alcoholic beverage industry had reason to rejoice: A health-conscious president had endorsed--or come very close to recommending- drinking in moderation.

You might have expected Clinton's comments to provoke some protest. Each year, the federal and state governments spend millions combating alcoholism, alcohol abuse, and drunk driving. An average of 300 people die each day from alcohol-related causes. Alcoholism and related problems cost the nation between $86 and $116 billion a year. So the president's remarks about drinking might have been news.

The lack of outcry reflects the stunning success of the alcohol industry's shrewd campaign in recent years to repackage booze as health food. It is the ultimate rehab story: The slumping industry capitalized on legitimate research suggesting that small amounts of alcohol may protect a regular drinker from coronary artery disease and even have a prolonging effect on life. That message isn't wrong--it's merely a fraction of the truth. This is also the tale of a complex health issue involving perilous tradeoffs that has been oversimplified, sometimes recklessly, by a self-interested industry and an over-eager news media.

1,000 pints of lite

The eighties were not banner years for the alcohol industry. Average annual wine, beer, and liquor consumption fell from a high in 1980 of 42.8 gallons per adult to 38.9 gallons in 1989. Per capita annual consumption of ethanol--the substance that makes you drunk--dropped during that period from 2.76 gallons to 2.43 gallons. By 1984, all 50 states had raised their legal drinking age from 18 to 21. Four years later, Congress mandated warning labels on alcoholic beverages. And the number of drinking Americans shrank. Today, a third of the population consumes 90 percent of all alcoholic beverages, while another third does not imbibe at all.

Faced with this dropping consumption the industry needed help. So it began exploiting an angle as old as wine itself: toasting your health.

The alcohol industry turned to a slew of studies dating back to the early seventies suggesting that moderate drinkers face a 25 to 50 percent lower risk of coronary artery disease or heart attack than nondrinkers. Wine (red or white) appears to be the best "medicine," but spirits and beer also seem to have a protective effect. Apparently, ethanol is what does it. …

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