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Fighting words over wine labels aired in San Francisco

wine label
The label on the bottom of this bottle states, 'We encourage you to consult your family doctor about the heath effects of wine consumption'  

May 24, 2000
Web posted at: 7:10 a.m. EDT (1110 GMT)

SAN FRANCISCO (CNN) -- A war over the words featured on wine bottle labels reaches its final public hearing Wednesday.

Health experts are squaring off with wine companies over the wording of the labels placed on bottles. Critics claim the labels subtly encourage people to drink, while the wine industry claims the wording is aimed at educating the public.

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms on Wednesday will hold the second of two scheduled public hearing in the heart of wine country -- San Francisco. Hearings were held in April in Washington, D.C., but were canceled for Atlanta, Chicago and Dallas due to a low level of interest.

VideoCNN's Rusty Dornin explains why some wine labels have become controversial.
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Two labels were approved by the ATF last year. One label directs people with questions about health effects of wine to send for the government's dietary guidelines. The other label urges people to ask their family physician.

"When it says 'health effects,' it gives the impression that the government is saying, 'drink for your health.' And the government has never said that," said Diana Conti of the American Public Health Association.

The federal government has imposed a temporary moratorium on the labels, which some members of Congress and health experts describe as "hidden marketing."

wine bottles
Health officials claim the labels encourage people to drink, but winemakers deny any such 'marketing ploy' in the statement  

But winemakers disagree.

"Our statement (on our label) reads: 'We encourage you to consult your physician about the health effects of wine consumption.' How that can be construed as a marketing ploy, I have no idea," said Patrick Campbell of the Laurel Glen Vineyard.

The government guidelines state that moderate drinking is associated with lower risk for heart disease in some people. Moderate drinking is defined as no more than two drinks per day for men and one drink per day for women.

But critics say few people will ever send for those guidelines.

"The Wine Institute, as well as the whole alcoholic beverage industry, has been on a 30-year campaign to try to hide the risk of alcoholic beverage consumption," said Dr. Jim Mosher of the California Council on Alcohol Policy. "The government needs to be sure people understand the very serious risk involved."

Winemakers say theirs is a free speech campaign to promote education about drinking responsibly. One public interest group agrees and has filed suit against the ATF.

"The bottom line is we're pointing people in the direction of documents put out by our own government," said John Deluca of the Wine Institute.

It may all boil down to a case where the wording of the labels may have been deemed legal, but what some critics read between the lines may be found unacceptable.

The ATF will accept written comments on the issue until September 29, 2000.

Correspondent Rusty Dornin contributed to this report.

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The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms
American Public Health Association
The Wine Institute

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