In California, a popular initiative recently passed as Proposition 65 -- a law intended to ensure clean drinking water -- has turned into a political bludgeon. Because of about 100 words inserted in the proposition, the panel of scientists charged with implementing it has had to report on toxic or carcinogenic substances in various products, and large doses of alcohol have been listed as a risk to pregnant women. Now anyone who sells alcoholic beverages must put up warning signs that alcohol can harm the human fetus.

Apparently few Californians read or understood the insertion. The majority were voting for clean water, not for warning signs about all potentially harmful products. Logically, the law could apply to other things -- like cough medicine, vanilla extract or even orange juice.

"This is a very skillful ploy to blur the distinction between alcohol use, and abuse," says John Deluca, president of the Wine Institute. "Under the guise of health concerns, some people are promoting a political agenda." Among the culprits Deluca sees are the National Council on Alcoholism and the Center for Science in the Public Interest. These and other groups want all alcohol labeled as dangerous. California wine producers are afraid of further impediments to selling their quite legitimate product -- in short, de facto prohibition.

Lest we forget, Prohibition was a social disgrace and a national disaster lasting for 13 years, from 1920 to 1933. "It took . . . 100 years to terrorize and lobby Americans into accepting National Prohibition," wine historian Leon Adams wrote in The Wines of America. The period had, and continues to have, more far-reaching social ramifications than most people realize.

During Prohibition, Americans spent an estimated $36 billion on alcohol; the vast illegal profits helped create a system of organized crime that has endured. The destruction of the wine industry was another unfortunate byproduct of Prohibition. But perhaps worst of all, Prohibition engendered cynicism throughout the land because it was unenforceable.

During Prohibition, the so-called Drys -- a relatively small group of anti- alcohol zealots -- fought to remove the mention of wine from all textbooks and classical works used in schools. "They published books," Adams writes, "attempting to prove that the wine praised in the Bible was really unfermented grape juice."

The Drys are still with us. Certainly not all consumer advocates are neo- prohibitionists, but some are. They are calling for warning labels and pure products, but what some of them really want is a return to 1920.

The average American consumes only 2.4 gallons of wine per year. Medical evidence indicates that wine drunk in moderation with meals is good for adults. But in many states, wine still suffers from "sin taxes" and other antiquated remnants of Prohibition.

Some neo-prohibitionists seem to envision a utopia devoid of pain and sickness -- a kind of Nautilus Nirvana in which a cholesterol-conscious citizenry nods to government semaphore. Many who oppose the consumption of alcohol are, in my opinion, moved by the simple desire to deprive others of pleasure -- a greatly underrated historical force. Fortunately, forcing an entire population to live by the precepts of a narrow moral code is unacceptable to Americans, both constitutionally and legally.

A discreet advisory for expectant mothers about alcoholic beverages is probably a good idea. But in general we should be allowed to drink our paltry 2.4 annual gallons of wine -- without warning signs and dread messages. ::