October 2, 1997

For more information:
Contact: George Hacker at
(202)332-9110, ext. 343

Wine Industry's Propaganda Misleads Public About Drinking

Marketing Campaign (Disguised as Research Findings) Boosts Wine as a Health Food -- Says CSPI Report

In a continuing barrage of press releases, research updates, and website postings, the California Wine Institute has mounted a steady, misleading publicity campaign to promote the health benefits of wine consumption, according to a 20-page report released by the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI).

"Disguised as objective information based on recent research," said CSPI alcohol policies project director George Hacker, "the Institute's propaganda spreads the deceptive and potentially dangerous message that moderate drinking -- especially moderate wine consumption -- is an important factor in maintaining all-around good health for the general public."

The CSPI report, Vintage Deception: The Wine Institute's Manipulation of Scientific Research to Promote Wine Consumption, acknowledges that moderate alcohol consumption is associated with reduced risk of coronary heart disease for some individuals, but criticizes the Wine Institute's promotion of other, less conclusive findings. It exposes how the Wine Institute manipulates research evidence to highlight reasons to drink, but fails to report evidence of alcohol's ill effects.

"There is no health magic in wine," said Sheila B. Blume, M.D., addiction psychiatrist and former New York State Commissioner on Alcoholism. "I would never recommend that anyone begin drinking because alcohol has many destructive health effects. Physicians simply cannot predict with any certainty who will become a problem drinker."

The CSPI report urges health professionals, government officials, journalists, and the public to scrutinize the Wine Institute's commercial propaganda carefully and skeptically.

CSPI examined a year's worth of Wine Institute publications and found numerous exaggerated and one-sided claims about the health effects of alcohol and, particularly, wine. The analysis found that the Wine Institute relied on an unpublished laboratory study to suggest benefits to humans from chemicals in wine and regularly omitted the cautions and qualifications about alcohol consumption made by researchers whose findings it cites. The Institute failed completely to mention the many health risks of "moderate" or heavy alcohol consumption.

"Twisting the findings of scientific research to convince consumers that they should drink for their health may help sell more wine," said Hacker, who co-authored the report. "However, increasing alcohol consumption will increase rates of alcohol problems, even if some older adults cut their risk of coronary heart disease.

"Not everyone will benefit from moderate alcohol consumption; for many, their risks of alcohol problems will rise, even if they drink moderately. Furthermore, there are healthier ways to achieve similar cardiovascular benefits -- like exercising, eating a better diet, and quitting smoking."

In France, often touted by the wine industry as a model wine-drinking society, high wine consumption translates into severe levels of alcohol problems. The rate of coronary heart disease may be relatively low, but deaths from alcohol-related digestive diseases and cancers, as well as unintentional injuries, are excessive, recently estimated at nearly 25% of all premature mortality. Official government policy in France, as in the United States, calls for reductions in alcohol consumption.

In the United States, alcohol is the third-leading cause of premature death; its use and abuse result in more than 100,000 deaths annually and impose more than $100 billion in economic damage on society.

The CSPI report provides a detailed, side-by-side comparison between numerous Wine Institute statements on several research topics and contradictory or qualifying references from the actual studies. It notes clarifying comments from the studies' authors and cites health advice on alcohol offered by government and private health agencies, whose reports the Wine Institute has ignored or distorted. The report covers Institute communications concerning wine consumption and women's health, the alleged cancer-fighting potential of wine, overall health effects, and the alleged health benefits of wine over other types of alcoholic beverages.

Journalists: Copies of the full report are available from CSPI. Call (202) 332-9110, ext. 385.

CSPI is a nonprofit health-advocacy organization that focuses on alcoholic-beverage problems, nutrition, and food safety. It is based in Washington, D.C., and is supported by foundation grants and the one million subscribers to its Nutrition Action Healthletter. It does not accept industry or government funding. CSPI led efforts to win passage of the law requiring warning labels on alcoholic beverages and has halted several deceptive marketing campaigns for alcoholic beverages.

Vintage Deception:
The Wine Institute's Manipulation of Scientific Research to Promote Wine Consumption Executive Summary

Under the guise of "education," the Wine Institute has launched a publicity campaign to sell more wine. The wine industry's pronouncements about scientific findings of the benefits of moderate alcohol consumption have saturated the media and entered the public consciousness. This "one size fits all" propaganda subverts public health policy and misleads the public about the advantages of drinking.

The wine industry's message overstates the case for wine and spreads potentially dangerous advice that could lead to higher alcohol consumption, with correspondingly higher levels of alcohol problems. Although moderate alcohol consumption has been associated with a reduced risk for heart disease for some people, alcohol does not benefit all people and certain individuals should avoid it altogether.

An analysis of Wine Institute publications, including recent Newsflashes, Research News Bulletins, Special Media Advisories, and its website, found that the Institute has:

  1. made exaggerated claims about the health benefits of alcohol and wine;
  2. suggested human health benefits from wine on the basis of an unpublished laboratory study;
  3. regularly omitted the cautions and qualifications made by researchers whose studies it cites;
  4. and failed completely to mention the health risks of alcohol consumption.

A few examples of the Wine Institute's manipulation of research findings:

  • One chart on the Institute's website (www.wineinstitute.org) asserts that studies have found moderate alcohol consumption may have beneficial effects on the common cold, kidney stones, Parkinson's disease, Alzheimer's disease, cognition and memory, pancreatic cancer, and many other conditions. The evidence for those benefits is preliminary, inconclusive, and contradicted by other research, yet the chart portrays wine as a virtual panacea. Neither the chart nor the website make any mention of wine's potential addictiveness or any of the serious and widespread health and safety problems linked to moderate or heavy drinking.
  • A January 1997 Wine Institute Newsflash headline boasts that resveratrol in wine acts as an anti-cancer agent. Although it identified the study as preliminary, the release ignored critical facts that temper the implications of the research. It failed to disclose that the mice in the study consumed resveratrol equivalent to the amount found in human consumption of five gallons of wine per day. It ignored the fact that scientists have found no evidence that the resveratrol could be absorbed into the human bloodstream through food or wine consumption. Other prominent researchers were unable to detect resveratrol in human bloodstreams, even after giving subjects "huge amounts of red wine" high in the compound. Wine Institute coverage of the study also omitted the authors' express reservations about the adverse effects of long-term alcohol consumption and their specific recommendation of foods and non-alcoholic beverages derived from grapes as preferable dietary sources of resveratrol.
  • In May 1997, the same month that an editorial in the scientific journal Epidemiology counseled women to avoid alcohol to reduce their breast cancer risk, the Wine Institute issued a Special Media Advisory suggesting that moderate wine consumption is not associated with increased risk of breast cancer. The advisory failed to report that the studies did not rule out the possibility of breast cancer risk at moderate levels of alcohol consumption or that they contradicted several other research findings. The Media Advisory ignored other factors that could have accounted for the finding of lower risk of breast cancer among moderate wine consumers. The report even excluded the opinion of the authors of one of the studies it cited. Those authors concluded that their study supports "the hypothesis that alcohol intake is a cause of breast cancer. A lifetime average of even one drink per day appears to be associated with a modest increase in risk." The American Cancer Society and government health agencies have cautioned women, especially those with a family history of breast cancer, to limit their alcohol consumption.

Health professionals, government officials, journalists, and the public should scrutinize the scientific research and the Wine Institute's commercial propaganda with great care. Journalists should be skeptical of Wine Institute reports, actively seek balance on issues raised by industry pronouncements, and provide additional information on problems related to alcohol consumption. The Institute should not be considered a reliable source of public health advice for the nation.

This report was authored by Laura Steinhardt and George Hacker. Ms. Steinhardt, a Yale undergraduate, interned at the Center for Science in the Public Interest in the summer of 1997. George Hacker directs the Alcohol Policies Project at CSPI.

The full Vintage Deception report is available for $5.00 plus $3.50 s/h. Contact CSPI's Alcohol Policies Project, or call 202/332-9110, ext. 385, or mail $8.50 to: CSPI -- Alcohol Policies, 1875 Connecticut Ave. N.W. Suite 300, Washington, DC 20009.