The government should not require warning labels on alcoholic beverges like the ones on cigarettes, according to a report submitted to Congress yesterday by the Departments of Treasury and Health and Human Services.
But the health hazards of drinking alcohol, particularly during pregnancy, warrant a major campaign by the government and the alcoholic beverage industry to acquaint the public with the risks, the report concludes.
The joint report was ordered by Congress late last year to resolve a dispute over whether a health warning should be required by law on all alcoholic beverages. A bill requiring such a warning was passed by the Senate in May 1979, but the House version struck out the requirement. Congress then passed a compromise law requiring the two departments to study the issue.
According to the report's conclusion, the risks of drinking alcohol are too complex and the effects vary too much from person to person to convey the hazard accurately in a general warning. The departments also felt that Americans have been "over-warned" and might be more willing to change their habits in response to changes in advertising of alcoholic beverages and information provided through doctors.
Despite recent studies indicating that drinking in moderation may protect against heart disease, the ill effects of alcohol on the body listed in the report far outweigh the benefits. They include:
Multiple risks to the fetus. Two drinks a week during pregnancy have been shown to increase the chances of miscarriage. Two drinks a day can cause babies to weigh far less at birth. And the Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, a pattern of multiple deformities and mental retardation, can occur following various levels of alcohol intake.
Increased risk of cancer, particularly cancer of the mouth, larynx, esophagus and liver. Smoking and drinking interact with each other to further raise cancer risk.
Adverse effects on the heart, particularly deterioraion of the heart muscle. This effect is separate from the possible protection provided by moderate drinking against coronary disease.
Damage to the nervous system, present in 50 to 70 percent of alcoholics who enter treatment programs.
Contribution to diseases of the gastrointestinal tract, particularly the liver and pancreas.
Involvement in traffic deaths, one-third of which are alcohol-related.
Association with depression and suicide. Approximately one-third of suicides involve alcohol use.
Dangerous interactions with drugs. Alcohol-drug interactions are the second most common cause of drug-related medical crisis.
The report recommends that Congress amend existing laws governing labeling of alcoholic beverages to provide for a uniform statement of alcohol content as percent by volume. It also lists measures to be taken by the Department of Health and Human Services to increase the familiarity of doctors, nurses and other health workers with the issue.
But it places most of the burden of public education on the beverage industry, with encouragement from federal agencies -- backed up by the threat that the warning label may be resurrected if a voluntary campaign fails.
A spokesman for Sen. Donald W. Riegle, chairman of the Senate subcommittee on alcoholism and drug abuse which introduced the warning label bill, said the senator had not yet had the opportunity to study the report.
A White House statement praised the report as a useful summary of the risks of excessive alcohol consumption, but said its conclusions about warning labels did not reflect the Carter administration's view. "In many circumstances, such labels are preferable to other forms of government action, which might be more intrusive or more costly," it said.