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Labels List Health Claims

Winemakers may put health claims on their bottles, the government decided, but only if they are either highly detailed, with numerous qualifications which emphasize facts the wine industry might not like to have publicized, or if they simply tell consumers where to find health-related information.

The rules appear to have trod a middle ground between opponents of alcohol, who were outraged that winemakers might be able to make health claims which would encourage people to drink, and those who argued that winemakers had a First Amendment right to make any statements they wanted about the health benefits of their products, so long as they were accurate.

"It strikes a balance between what we think is the kind of prudent position have to take with alcohol, and the requirements of commercial free speech," said a senior official of the Treasury Department, which issued the rules. "We felt we would not be able to prevent people from making truthful statements, but we can require they put the truthful statement in context, so it is not misleading." In 1999, the government had approved so-called directional labels on wines, which simply directed consumers to either talk to their doctors "about the health effects of wine consumption" or to send for a government study on dietary guidelines.

The Treasury Department had viewed such statements as neutral, but some saw them as advocating wine consumption and angrily protested. The government put a moratorium on such directional labels but the new rule allows them, with modifications. Fearing that consumers might see such a directional label as implying that drinking alcohol is healthy, the new rule said such a rule would have to include a sentence like, "This statement should not encourage you to drink or to increase your alcohol consumption for health reasons."

Even with that added warning, the rule pleased some in the wine idustry 'We're delighted with the news because for centuries there has anecdotal evidence that when used in moderation, wine has many benefits," Erich Russell, a winemaker and founder of Rabbit Ridge Winery, said in a statement. "In the last 20 years, a growing body of rigorous scientific studies have shown health benefits." John De Luca, Resident of the Wine Institute, praised the decision. 'We believe science has prevailed over politics," he said. "The wine industry believes that the American public has the right to know, and should be muted to handle the information on the potential health risks and benefits of alcohol consumption."

Opponents of directional statements had argued that they would cause more harm than good. Some noted statistics indicating that since 1991 pregnant women have been more to dtink than before, and voiced fears that any reference to health benefits might encourage more such drinking.

The directional label proposed by the Wine Institute would direct consumers to government dietary guidelines that state, in part: "Drinking in moderation may lower risk for coronary heart disease, mainly among men over age 45 and women over age 55. However, there are other factors that reduce the risk of heart disease, including a healthy diet, physical activity, avoidance of smoking, and maintenance of a healthy weight. Moderate consumption provides little, if any, health benefit for younger people."

The new government rules leave open the possibility that winemakers could make specific health claims, but they would require such claims to be heavily qualified and to be explained in ways that could lead to very long statements on labels. "Claims that set forth only a partial picture or representation might be as likely to mislead the consumer as those that are actually false," the Treasury said in explaining the new rule. "A claim that is supported by scientific evidence might still mislead the consumer without appropriate qualification and detail. Any such claim is considered misleading unless it is properly qualified and balanced, sufficiently detailed and specific, and outlines the categories of individuals for whom any positive effects on health would be outweighed by numerous negative effects on health."

Thus a claim about heart benefits might have to note that the biggest benefits would come only to those at greatest risk of heart disease and to note that the risks for younger drinkers might outweigh the benefits.

The senior Treasury official, who spoke on condition he not be identified, said he doubted that any wine companies would choose to include such information on a label, but he said he thought some might choose to use it in advertisements.

The new rules apply to all alcoholic beverages, including beer and distilled spirits, but it was only the winemaker that had been pushing for a new rule.

The final rule said that a statement would be considered misleading, and thus not allowed, unless it "is truthful and substantiated by scientific or medical evidence; discloses the health risks associated with both moderate and heavier levels of alcohol consumption, and outlines the categories of individuals for whom any alcohol consumption poses risks." The new rule also provides that before any health claim is approved for a label, the FDA will be consulted, and that the proposed claim will not be allowed if the FDA think the claim is barred under laws it enforces.

Importer Michael Skurnik said he doubted that the allowed new references to health would actually sell more wine. "We've often thought it would be better if there was a government warning that said, 'Beware that this product may lead to pregnancy," he said. "You know, it's one of the great things about wine."

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