Thurmond bill would bar ‘health’ labels on alcoholic beverages

Friday, March 5, 1999

Free-speech advocates and wine-industry leaders are branding an attempt to ban health-education labels for alcoholic beverages as a blatant attempt at censorship.

Sen. Strom Thurmond, R-S.C., introduced a bill last week that would prohibit any statements on alcoholic beverages — “or any box, carton or other package … that contains such a container” — other than the surgeon general's warning mandated by federal law since 1989.

That warning provides: “According to the Surgeon General, women should not drink alcoholic beverages during pregnancy because of the risk of birth defects. Consumption of alcoholic beverage impairs your ability to drive a car or operate machinery, and may cause health problems.”

Thurmond proposed the Alcoholic Beverage Label Preservation Act of 1999 in direct response to last month's approval by the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms of the Wine Institute's new label statement: “To learn the health effects of wine consumption, send for the Federal Government's Dietary Guidelines for Americans.”

After the ATF's decision, Wine Institute Chairman Dianne Nury stated in a news release: “The approved voluntary label language, at the center of a three-year inter-agency, congressional and national debate, can be used — in accordance with ATF procedures — by all winegrowers and is not intended to negate or supplant the mandatory government warning, in place since 1989.”

The Wine Institute called the ATF's decision a “historic regulatory breakthrough.” Thurmond, however, characterized the decision as “irresponsible.”

Thurmond's bill states that “consumers would be confused by an additional statement or representation” beyond the mandated surgeon general's warning. The measure also says that “any such additional statement or representation would conflict with, dilute, impede and undermine the clear reminder of the health effects or consequences in the statement required by this Act.”

The Wine Institute disagrees. “This measure clearly violates our First Amendment rights of commercial free speech,” said Gladys Horiuchi, the organization's communication manager.

“We are not surprised by this latest proposal,” she said. “Senator Thurmond has a long history of introducing these kinds of bills. He is the one, in fact, who attached the measure mandating the surgeon general's warning.”

“Even though no action has yet been taken on the measure, we are taking it very seriously,” Horiuchi said.

Free-speech experts agree with the Wine Institute that Thurmond's proposal violates free-speech rights.

Richard Kaplar, editor of The Commercial Speech Digest, called the bill “an overreactive, patronizing attempt to limit useful information reaching consumers.”

Kaplar says there is nothing wrong with a label that invites consumers to learn more about health effects from their doctors or a federal government publication.

“The labels approved by ATF don't tout any health benefits — or even mention the word 'benefits,'” he said. “When the ATF's review process is so deliberate, there's absolutely no need for an outright ban on labels.”

Paul McMasters, First Amendment ombudsman for The Freedom Forum, agrees. “After years of wielding the censor's stamp over wine labeling, the ATF
makes a commonsense gesture toward trusting the public with a little bit
more information, and Senator Thurmond pounces,” he said. “Does he really believe that government bureaucrats are better judges of health information than the
people themselves? He should be pulled over for legislating while under the
influence of Big Government.”