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Neoprohibitionists’ fig leaf: warning labels


If it can happen in Australia, it can happen here.

I’m talking about the government requiring wine bottle labels to carry “large and graphic health warnings similar to [those on] cigarette packs,” which “public health lobbyists” Down Under are pushing for.

The wine industry is gearing up for a big fight, predicts the Herald Sun.

The industry already has developed voluntary online guidelines concerning drinking while pregnant, under their DrinkWise Australia program, but last November it rejected mandatory label warnings, with a spokesperson for the Winemakers Federation of Australia, the nonprofit trade group, arguing “We don’t believe [tobacco-like graphics] is the right approach.” His words were echoed by a top Treasury Wine Estates exec, who told the Herald Sun, “The [DrinkWise] guidelines around pregnancy and drinking were a good example of the industry moving forward with sensible and practical action,” and that further steps are not needed “at this time.”

But some “public health advocates” apparently disagree. They want “large and graphic” warnings, “to take up to 25 per cent of [the volume of] front labels,” on everything “from violence and car accidents to long-term health impacts such as liver and brain damage as well as cancer and blindness.”


We’ve seen this issue rear its ugly head time and time again here in the States. Anti-alcohol groups such as Marin County-based Alcohol Justice (formerly known and much ridiculed as the Marin Institute) have been active for many years trying bring about what they call “healthy communities free of the alcohol industry’s negative impact,” which sounds suspiciously like communities free of alcohol, period. Such groups, far from being mere cranky fringe riders, always must be considered dangerous. Remember, it wasn’t that long ago–Oct. 1919, less than 100 years ago, a blink in History’s eye–that these anti-alcohol types grew so powerful they actually succeeded in getting alcohol declared illegal across the United States. Repeal, in 1933, was a severe blow to them; but they never went away, simply recoiled, re-huddled and began planning their next assault on our drinking rights. In the early 1990s, they made their last big play, but were again defeated, largely because the Wine Institute took its considerable political clout to Sacramento and Washington, D.C. and defeated them. But these people, fueled by fanatacism, never entirely go away.

Alcohol Justice (what a silly name) isn’t entirely evil. When they say they “oppose the greedy, corporate promotion of alcohol to youth,” I think most of us can agree that the beer companies, in particular, and also to some extent spirits companies are pretty aggressive and outrageous in their advertising. Where I part company is when they use the phrase “the concentrated wine and spirits corporations” to lump wine in with the bad guys. I see no evidence of a “greedy” wine industry promoting its products “to youth.” Do you? It seems to me that the wine industry has been a model of rectitude. If anything, wine bends over backwards to portray itself as the beverage of adults, for drinking with good food, with stimulating friends, in controlled settings of dinner parties or restaurants. I’ve never seen a winery trying to appeal to teenagers.

The Aussie blogger Crikey [Bernard Keane] has got it exactly right when he explains the difference between anti-tobacco movements and anti-alcohol movements: “the mere use of tobacco is harmful whereas the vast majority of alcohol consumers consume it safely and, indeed, obtain health benefits from it”–a fact that “is deliberately overlooked” by groups such as Alcohol Justice. In other words, any puff of tobacco is dangerous; a glass or two of wine is actually healthful. I have yet to see an anti-alcohol organization, such as Alcohol Justice, admit this.


  1. Bill Haydon says:

    While I agree 99% with the thrust of your article, we shouldn’t so arrogantly assume purity on the part of the wine industry. In particular, the largest wine company in America has, throughout their history, been knee deep in the very questionable and reprehensible marketing tactics you condemn.

    From having sales reps scatter broken thunderbird bottles in minority neighborhoods to blatantly targeting teen drinkers with wine coolers ads, Gallo has been as bad–if not worse–than any beer or spirits company.

  2. I wonder when it became fashionable to think that any drink of any kind on the part of someone younger than 21 was an offense against the world.

    OK, I grew up in a different time, and it was a lot easier for me and my buddies to buy beer and wine in our pre-college days than it is now. We did not get drunk. We had a beer or shared a bottle of wine, especially the Italian kids who grew up having wine at home with their families.

    Somehow, we had the brilliance to stop smoking almost as soon as we started, but having a drink, well, we would happily play ball until it got dark, then wander down to the local “package” store for a whistle wetter.

    Now, smoking. Cigarettes are the only product that used according to instructions is guaranteed to kill a fair percentage of those who partake. That, by itself, separates it from alcohol.

  3. I think if we have to put warning labels about the risks of alcohol that take up 25% of the front label, it should include scientific facts like “1-2 glasses of wine per day are proven to reduce heart disease” and “1 glass of wine per day during pregnancy is completely harmless”.

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