Call it Strom Thurmond's revenge on the wine industry.
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms this week threw open the controversial question of whether the government should prohibit labels on wine and other alcoholic beverages that make health claims without detailed qualifications about the risks of drinking. It also wants to make sure that consumers are not confused or deceived by labels that make such claims.
It also asked for comment on whether the "negative consequences of alcohol consumption" should be reason enough to prohibit the industry from making any health claims, including directing consumers to the government's dietary guidelines or their doctors, as winemakers are now allowed to do.
The rule-making essentially is directed at the wine industry, which in February was granted authority by ATF to put "directional" labels on its products, in essence telling consumers that wine is good for them. The labels do not explicitly say wine drinking is healthful, but they suggest that consumers check with their doctors or the federal government's dietary guidelines, which mention that "moderate drinking is associated with a lower risk for coronary heart disease in some individuals."
This change infuriated Sen. Thurmond (R-S.C.), who opposes any labeling on wine bottles that might contradict the message of the government warning already found on bottles that tells pregnant women not to drink and warns of health problems. (He lost a daughter to a drunken driver in 1993.)
Before the first directional label was pasted on a bottle, he blasted the decision as "irresponsible, subjective and . . . poor public policy." That afternoon, he called Robert Rubin, then secretary of the Treasury, ATF's parent department.
He uncorked a carafe of bills that would have stripped ATF of its authority to approve wine labels, increased taxes on the wine industry and blocked the two directional labels.
Plus, he attached a provision to the Department of Agriculture's appropriations bill that would have cut millions of dollars the domestic wine industry receives from an Agriculture Department program to boost exports. He asked for investigations by the inspectors general at the departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services into whether the wine industry influenced the dietary guidelines.
And, to really focus the Clinton administration on his feelings about health claims and wine labeling, he held up the nominations of four top Treasury nominees in the Senate.
On April 21, a chastened Rubin wrote Thurmond a letter saying he supported banning health claims on labels and that ATF would start a rule-making. "I regret that we did not consult with you more closely prior to the approval of two wine labels containing health-related statements," he said.
After Rubin left Treasury, Thurmond also made it clear in several published reports that Treasury Secretary Lawrence H. Summers's confirmation might go more smoothly if he supported the rule-making.
A senior Treasury official, who asked not to be named, said the rule-making was an attempt to set formal policy on these issues. For the past 60 years, ATF has been giving the industry informal guidance on what is permissible on alcoholic-beverage labels. It always has taken a dim view of suggesting that alcohol has any curative or therapeutic value, holding that "distilled spirits, wines and malt beverages are, in reality, alcoholic beverages and not medicines of any sort."
"Senator Thurmond suggested we put existing policy out there and have a full debate on that," he said.
The wine industry says it welcomes that debate, even though it accused Thurmond of coercing Treasury into examining the issue with "unrelenting year-long pressure." The wineries also have the support of the California congressional delegation, and they have used free-speech arguments to bolster their position that the labels should be allowed.
"If anything, the science is more compelling than ever on the health effects of moderate drinking," said John DeLuca, president of the Wine Institute in San Francisco.
But the proposal also could be a setback if the ATF decides directional labels are out of bounds after all. "Maybe the best thing might be no directional labels or health claims--only the warning label," said John DeCrosta, spokesman for Thurmond. "This will be a good forum for people to talk about how foolish this campaign by the wine industry is."
Such a decision would reverse the work of the Wine Institute, which for the past several years has worked tirelessly to put a health claim on wine bottles to tout its belief--and the belief of some doctors and scientists--that a glass or two of wine a day with a meal is not only civilized but also good for your health. In its newsletters and public relations material, the industry widely disseminates the view that drinking in moderation--particularly red wine--lowers the risk of heart disease.
"This would put a lid on health claims by making the requirement for balance so onerous," said George Hacker, director of the Alcohol Policies Project for the Center for Science in the Public Interest.
The government also is revising the dietary guidelines, and there is the expectation that this time around the claims for drinking in moderation might not be so explicit, sources said.
As for Thurmond, he was positively giddy Monday when the proposal was published. He called it "refreshingly responsible action" and added he couldn't imagine why anyone would oppose the proposal.