The Alcoholic Beverage Labeling Act of 1988 requires that TTB consult with the Surgeon General (SG) on the warning label when “…available scientific information would justify a change in, addition to, or deletion of the statement.”
If certain groups have their way today, the U.S. beverage alcohol warning label may soon be graced with this adjunct message: “Government Warning: According to the Surgeon General, consumption of alcoholic beverages can cause cancer, including breast and colon cancers.”
The proposed additional warning was included in a letter to the U.S. Department of Treasury’s Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB). Spearheaded by the Consumer Federation of America (CFA), an association of non-profit consumer organizations established in 1968 with the aim to advance consumer interest through research, advocacy, and education, the letter was a joint effort among CFA, the American Institute for Cancer Research, the American Public Health Association and the U.S. Alcohol Policy Alliance.
Citing success with tobacco rotating warnings, the letter to TTB proposes rotating the new warning with the existing warnings on beverage alcohol labels.
CFA says its research organization “investigates consumer issues, behavior, and attitudes through surveys, focus groups, investigative reports, economic analysis, and policy analysis.” The organization spreads its analysis and advocacy among about a dozen American social and economic categories throughout the halls of government, in Congress, at the White House, with federal and state regulatory agencies, state legislatures, and in the courts. In this instance, CFA claims to increase consumers’ awareness of what it calls a little-known link between alcohol and cancer.
The advocacy groups would rather Americans stop drinking beverage alcohol altogether, citing a survey by the American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR), to make the point. In its report of the survey, AICR states that it’s a good idea to give up beverage alcohol, however, it also states if we choose not to do so, two drinks for men and one for women daily is suggested.
The letter to TTB pointed to an SG report that CFA says links moderate alcohol consumption to cancer. That report largely relies on a study conducted by the National Institute of Health, (NIH) which speaks neither of link nor cause but mainly of risk: “Moderate alcohol consumption is consistently associated with increased risk of breast cancer…Despite a dose-dependent association between alcohol and breast cancer risk, it remains unclear about a threshold level of alcohol consumption above which the increased risk of breast cancer becomes clinically significant.” The conclusion of the NIH study also includes this statement: “Moderate alcohol consumption appears to reduce the risk of developing or dying from heart disease, the leading cause of death in the USA.”
In a CBS report, CFA’s director of food policy, Thomas Gremillion said, “The industry has succeeded in putting a health halo around alcohol. The government has the responsibility to give consumers the scientific information they need to make informed decisions about alcohol, just as it does with tobacco.”
It’s no surprise that the beverage alcohol industry disagrees with the gist of the letter to TTB, and especially with the extra warning.
On its website, the American Beverage Institute states, “While there is a long-standing consensus that moderate alcohol consumption can lower the risk of mortality, type 2 diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, and cardiovascular diseases, efforts to demonize all manners of alcohol consumption have endeavored to dim this “health halo.” Evidence supports the notion that moderate consumption can be part of a healthy lifestyle.”
Jackson Shedelbower, American Beverage Institute’s (ABI) communications director says, “The movement to label alcohol as the new tobacco is growing. And if efforts to tie moderate drinking to broad health problems are successful, applying tobacco-style regulations to alcohol products is not far behind…Their path is to substantially lower the bar on product warnings so that the product, as opposed to the misuse, becomes the triggering issue for warnings.”
Recent activity such as the letter to TTB about warning labels and cancer appear to be part of a World Health Organization’s (WHO) coordinated global effort to reduce beverage alcohol consumption considerably if not completely. WHO and others have used tobacco as a guide to meet their goal, and it may be working.
According to an alcohol-related study funded by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism and reported in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs a survey of 8,750 adults interviewed in 2015 provided an estimate of 53 million people in the U.S. annually (1 in 5) being harmed by someone else’s drinking. The report claims “second-hand drinking” is a national public health issue that causes major problems including threats, harassment, marital and financial, property damage through vandalism and driving-related accidents. In addition to the cancer warning, it’s not a stretch to imagine another rotating label warning about second-hand drinking.
Says Shedelbower, “All studies exploring human health should be taken seriously and abusing alcohol can have major health repercussions. But it’s clear when examining the comprehensive body of science that panic over one daily drink is misplaced.”
Meanwhile, the journal Gastroenterology published the results of a study from the Department of Twin Research & Genetic Epidemiology at King’s in the United Kingdom (UK), which shows moderate red wine consumption is associated with greater diversity of healthy gut microbes.
An imbalance in bacterial species may lead to reduced immune system, weight gain or high cholesterol; a higher number of different bacterial species is considered a marker of gut health. The study’s authors believe the benefit is derived from polyphenols in red wine, the same stuff many studies claim maintains a healthy cardiac system. But you won’t find that information on a wine label.
Unlike climate science, the U.S. federal government accepts negative effect alcohol science: TTB allows health warning labels on wine bottles but does not allow health benefit labels.
Shedelbower believes, “It’s unfortunate…there is no good news lobby for science-based consumer information.”