Brief History of the Issue

On October 25, 1999, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (BATF) issued a notice of proposed rulemaking to amend regulations governing health claims in alcohol advertising and on product labels. The notice opens a 120-day comment period that will allow consumer input on issues concerning substantive and "directional" health-related statements.

As the BATF says in its notice (accessible at, the agency has historically taken a very strict view of the regulatory prohibition on curative or therapeutic claims about alcoholic-beverages. This strict interpretation is based on the view that "distilled spirits, wines and malt beverages are, in reality, alcoholic beverages and not medicines of any sort... ." In view of the undisputed health risks associated with alcohol consumption, it is BATF's position that statements attributing positive health effects to the consumption of alcoholic-beverages are misleading unless such statements are appropriately qualified and properly balanced.

However, in February 1999, in response to an earlier request made by the Wine Institute, BATF approved two new "health effects" messages for wine labels. CSPI opposed those labels because we believe that such information may give consumers the impression that they should consume alcohol beverages for health reasons. (See for CSPI's earlier Action Alert urging groups to oppose this action.)

Following the February 1999 BATF labeling decision, CSPI, Senator Strom Thurmond and others urged BATF to withdraw its approval for those "health effects" labels. In response to Senator Thurmond's concerns, BATF is now revisiting the whole issue of allowing health-related statements on alcoholic-beverage containers. As you will see from reading the notice, BATF proposes to restate its existing position.

Significantly, this rule-making procedure also allows the alcoholic-beverage industry to present arguments that BATF should change its position, and allow health-related claims on alcoholic-beverage containers. In order for the de facto prohibition on health-related statements to continue, BATF must have the strongest possible record for its decision. We urge you to write to the agency expressing your organization's (and members') support for a complete ban on all health-related statements on alcoholic-beverage containers and in advertising, including recision of the directional labels already approved.

How does this BATF proceeding relate to the petition that 125 organizations and members of Congress filed in November, asking BATF to change the appearance of warning labels?

They are totally separate regulatory proceedings. BATF is dealing with each matter independently.

Key Points to Consider in Writing BATF:

  • The potential health impacts of consuming alcoholic-beverages are very complex and vary by genetic and family history, age, sex, race, other lifestyle habits (diet, exercise, family and other social relations, medications taken) as well as varying by the alcoholic beverage consumption patterns of each person. No brief message on any beverage container can possibly provide a consumer with adequate information to make a decision about drinking "or health-related reasons."
    • Alcohol, like any drug, may provide both health benefits and health risks to those who consume it. The balance between risks and benefits varies for each person.
    • Men and women who drink alcoholic beverages regularly have, in comparison with abstainers, higher death rates from cirrhosis, cancers of the mouth, larynx, pharynx, esophagus, and liver; from colorectal cancer, breast cancer, hemorrhagic stroke; and from injuries, violence, poisoning and suicide. Alcohol causes birth defects and can cause inflammation of the pancreas and damage to the brain.
    • Heavier consumption of alcohol (averaging three or more drinks per day, or consuming more than five drinks at one time) increases health risks for anyone.
    • Women who are pregnant or attempting to conceive should never consume alcohol -- any level of alcohol in the blood can damage the developing fetus, which is particularly vulnerable to the effects of alcohol during the first trimester (when a woman may not know she is pregnant).
    • The consumption of small amounts of alcohol may provide a reduction in risk for coronary artery disease or ischemic stroke. The maximum benefits occur with the consumption of as little as one drink per day for men or 1/2 drink per day for women. Consumption of amounts in excess of two drinks per day raises the risk to health for accidents and for other diseases.
    • Approximately one in ten people who choose to drink will become addicted to alcohol. Because alcoholism is at least partially a genetically determined disease, people with a family history of alcoholism are at much greater risk and should never consume alcoholic beverages.
    • People who are regularly taking over-the-counter drugs containing acetaminophen should not consume alcohol. Many other medications interact with alcohol. People on medications should always check with a doctor about the safety of drinking.
  • At a minimum, consumers would need to be provided with a detailed multi-page document (similar to those now provided by the manufacturers of prescription medications) in order to make an informed choice about whether or not a decision to consume an alcoholic-beverage for health reasons would be, on balance, a good or a bad decision. (Of course, consumers may be choosing to drink for non-health related reasons -- but the question in this rule-making is about health-related claims).
  • "Moderate" drinking is poorly defined, and may not be defined on a label. The U.S. Dietary Guidelines defines it as no more than two drinks per day for a man, or one drink a day for a woman. However, research conducted by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration shows that virtually all drinkers define their personal level of consumption as "moderate," whether they consume one drink per week or five drinks per day.
  • Given the overblown publicity in the past few years about the alleged health benefits of consuming alcoholic beverages, any less-detailed claim or reference to health impacts or benefits might be interpreted by the uninformed consumer as a government-authorized statement suggesting that people drink alcohol for their health.
  • Research clearly shows that any measure which increases the average level of alcohol consumption in a society will result in increased levels of disease and increased accidents for the society as a whole.
  • Congress has already required a warning statement on alcoholic-beverage containers. Any other reference to health impacts or benefits is likely to confuse consumers and undermine the impact of the existing warning statement. In adopting the current warning message requirement, the U.S. Congress determined that "it would be beneficial to provide a clear, nonconfusing reminder of such hazards... ."
  • There are better, less risky ways to attain the same health benefits that consuming small amounts of alcoholic-beverages provide to a limited group of people. Smoking cessation, good diet, exercise, and stress management techniques can all provide cardiac-protective benefits for people who might otherwise be at risk for coronary artery disease. It would be irresponsible for the government to allow a health-claims statement on alcoholic-beverages that touted the most risk-laden way of obtaining those benefits.

To whom should you write?

Your comments must be received by February 22, 2000.

James P. Ficaretta, Chief
Regulations Division
ATTN: Notice 884
Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms
P.O. Box 50221
Washington, DC 20091-0221

January 2000