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Editorial: Old wine, new labels

Objections to advertising the virtues of vino

Thursday, February 18, 1999

Ah, the fruit of the vine. Matured in wooden casks before bottling, wine is a living thing to be lifted into the light and savored. The ancient world thought wine such a blessing that it had its own god. The modern world has given it warning labels.

These labels are enough to take the chill off the bottle and put it into any romantic couple together for a candlelight dinner: They warn that pregnant women should not drink alcohol and that alcohol can impair driving and cause health problems.

That's all true enough, and such warnings are in line with the modern practice of giving people explicit reminders of common knowledge on the general theory that many have no common sense.

But there is another side to the story. Scientific research has found that - in moderate amounts - drinking alcohol can actually do some people good by reducing their risk of heart disease.

So, in something akin to truth in advertising, the Treasury Department has approved two new statements for wine bottles:

"The proud people who made this wine encourage you to consult your family doctor about the health effects of wine consumption," reads one statement. The other says: "To learn the health effects of wine consumption, send for the federal government's Dietary Guidelines for Americans." It then provides a mailing address and suggests visiting a Web site.

These are hardly intoxicating endorsements of drinking wine for a healthy life, but they are athwart the nanny culture which aims only to scold - and so have been opposed in various quarters. An op-ed piece in The New York Times said the wine industry's clout had overridden public health concerns and the labeling decision "exemplifies what is wrong with the political process in Washington."

But as balance is the result, the political process has not failed. The government warnings will stay on the bottles, and the new information is merely an addition. And adding a suggestion to seek more information is not too unreasonable to swallow.

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