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FDA guidance for closures opens can of worms (sidebar)

Sour grapes on wine labels?

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Some health groups, the American Medical Assn. and the government's top physician are trying to prevent the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (BATF) from giving the green light to vintners for a voluntary new label on wine bottles. The label would allude to the "health effects" of moderate wine consumption and refer the consumer to the federal government's Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Those guidelines emphasize the importance of drinking in moderation, which is "associated with a lower risk for coronary heart disease in some individuals." Currently, wines carry a mandatory warning label referring to the risks of drinking alcohol while pregnant or while operating machinery or driving. The Wine Institute feels that warning doesn't present the full picture of scientific knowledge on wine, alcohol and health. Gladys Horiuchi, a Wine Institute spokeswoman, insists the new label would help vintners separate their product from other "sin" products, such as tobacco. This would have a positive effect in such areas as taxation and product liability. She argues that the label is not being sought for marketing purposes. She acknowledges, though, the press attention given the Wine Institute's campaign at the BATF "has had a marketing glow." John Eisenberg, M.D., acting assistant secretary for health at the Department of Health and Human Services, has had a testy exchange of letters with John Magaw, director of the BATF. Eisenberg thinks the new wine label is "a thinly disguised attempt to make an affirmative health claim." He doubts any consumer would actually send for the government's Dietary Guidelines, much less read them. The BATF regulates wine labels under the Federal Alcohol Administration Act. That law prevents label statements alluding to curative or therapeutic effects if they are false or misleading. McGaw says the BATF policy on health statements is that they are misleading unless they are properly qualified, give all sides of the issue and outline the categories of individuals for whom any positive effect of consumption would be outweighed by numerous negative health effects. He says a health effects label meets this requirement because it is a "directional" label and merely directs the consumer to a qualified, balanced source of information regarding the health effects of alcohol consumption.

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