On the Wine Institute’s Proposal to use new labels implying that there are health benefits to consuming wine

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, part of the U.S. Treasury Department, is once again considering the approval of new labels for wine bottles that will imply to consumers that there are health benefits to be had from drinking wine. These labels would say: "To learn the health effects of moderate wine consumption, send for the Federal Government’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans."

In the past several years, the alcoholic beverage with the fastest growing consumption has been wine. Alcohol recently passed coffee as the beverage most likely to be consumed with a meal; 50% of all alcohol drunk with meals is wine, 35% is beer and 15% is hard liquor. Much of that growth has come as a result of an ongoing campaign by the wine industry to convince people that drinking wine will improve your health.

This campaign has been based on a variety of scientific studies that show that the consumption of a moderate amount of alcohol may reduce the chances of a heart attack for some people. At the same time, there is overwhelming evidence that for many others, any drinking may be unhealthy or risk-laden. Even for the people who might benefit from moderate drinking, the risks outweigh the benefits as consumption increases.

In order to further their marketing efforts, wine producers have made a number of attempts in the past few years to make direct claims for the health benefits of drinking wine. For example, one company wanted to quote Louis Pasteur on bottles, as saying "Wine is the most healthful and hygienic of beverages." Another winery, Beringer Wine Estates, sought to attach a bottle neck-hanger with quotes from the CBS "60 minutes" show on "the French paradox."


Secretary Robert Rubin
U.S. Department of Treasury
1500 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
Washington, D.C. 20220


Mr. John W. Magaw, Director
Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms
650 Massachusetts Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20226


We believe that any new labels for wine that refer people to the U.S. Dietary Guidelines will be misleading to consumers in several ways:

(1) The existing mandated warning labels currently caution that alcohol consumption during pregnancy may lead to birth defects. It is important not to undercut this message.

A recent study by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that drinking by pregnant women, the cause of fetal alcohol syndrome, is increasing. The authors of that study suggested that "...exposure to recent reports on the health benefits of moderate drinking my have contributed to the recent increase in alcohol consumption."1

(2) The current version of the Dietary Guidelines was released in 1995. Since that time new research has become available linking "moderate" drinking, particularly by pre-menopausal women, with an increased incidence of breast cancer. The studies show that the risk of breast cancer begins to increase at consumption levels as small as one drink per day. The 1995 Dietary Guidelines do not warn women of this risk, and so any label referring to those guidelines would neglect that warning.2  Furthermore, it is clearly inappropriate to approve new wine labels referring to the U.S. Dietary Guidelines when those Guidelines are in the process of being revised. They may something significantly different by the time the labels are printed and affixed to wine bottles.

(3) Last spring, as part of their initial consideration of this request from the wine industry, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (BATF) asked the Center for Substance Abuse Prevention (CSAP), to conduct a study of how consumers might react to the proposed labels. That study found that 88% of existing wine drinkers would not drink more in response to the new labels. This study is now being used as evidence that the proposed labels would not trigger a public health problem.

That CSAP study has two major shortcomings:

  • It only tested people who were already wine drinkers. Representatives of the wine industry have been quoted in various industry publications as saying that they hope that the information about "health benefits" will attract new wine drinkers. The CSAP study excluded any look at whether or not purported health claims would persuade non-drinkers to begin drinking wine.
  • Even so, the study found that few consumers would heed the suggestion of the proposed label and actually consult the Dietary Guidelines in order to see what they said.

(4) The proposed label refers to "moderate wine consumption." It does not define the word moderate. In general it has been found that most people define "moderate consumption" as whatever they already do. In essence, the term "moderate" has no specific meaning.

(5) When people consume more than one to two drinks of alcohol per day, they are at risk for other health problems. The U. S. Dietary Guidelines do warn that: "higher levels of alcohol intake raise the risk for high blood pressure, stroke, heart disease, certain cancers, accidents, suicides, birth defects, and overall mortality. Too much alcohol may cause cirrhosis of the liver, inflammation of the pancreas and damage to the brain and heart."

In our opinion, a general statement on a label that refers to "health effects" would imply to consumers that the Guidelines focus on "benefits" to be had from moderate drinking -- something about which the Guidelines are almost silent.

(6) It should also be noted that even a modest level of consumption (defined as one to two drinks per day) carries with it significant health risks:

        Stroke                                                  Cancer
        Birth Defects                                      Potential Addiction
        Motor Vehicle Crashes                     Interaction with Medication


1.     "Alcohol Consumption by Pregnant Women in the United States During 1988-1995," Ebrahim et al., Obstetrics & Gynecology, Vol. 92, No. 2, August 1998, pp. 187-192.

2.   "Alcohol and Breast Cancer in Women," Journal of the American Medical Association, February 18, 1998. Conclusions of the study: Alcohol consumption is associated with a linear increase in breast cancer incidence in women over the range of consumption reported by most women. Among women who consume alcohol regularly, reducing alcohol consumption is a potential means to reduce breast cancer risk."

Released: October 28, 1998

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