Why Alcohol Labels Are More Important Now Than Ever

The first half of 2013 has seen a flurry of activity related to alcohol regulation. Heads first turned in February when controversial alcoholic beverage (and onetime energy drink) Four Loko was ordered by the Federal Trade Commission to put new labels on its packaging to provide vital serving-size information.

A few months later, in May, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) made headlines when it recommended that states lower the blood alcohol limit for drivers from .08 percent to .05 percent -- nearly a 40 percent reduction.

Most recently, the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) decided in early June to allow voluntary nutrition labels on alcoholic beverages for the first time in modern U.S. history.

Perhaps the stars are finally aligning to require nutrition labeling on alcoholic beverages, the subject of hot debate for decades. Alcohol labeling and the blood alcohol limit have usually been separate conversations, but the issues are actually connected. The link: how much consumers want or need to know before they drink.

NTSB Chairman Deborah Hersman told The Huffington Post that she believes "there are a lot of people who will embrace more information and use it to make better choices." Facts like serving size and alcohol content "are important things for people to take into consideration, and it will change some people's behavior," said Hersman, whose agency does not have an official stance on alcohol labeling. "I think some people will drink less."

The Consumer Federation of America, which has been vocal in its campaign for more extensive labeling of alcoholic beverages, takes no official position on the NTSB's recommendation. But its director, Chris Waldrop, told HuffPost that the move "further demonstrates the need for alcohol labeling."

"If [the blood alcohol limit] changed, that would affect consumers when they're going out and drinking and considering how many drinks they're going to have and whether or not they're going to drive home," Waldrop said.

In the century since the passage of the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act, several governmental agencies have had a say in the labeling of alcoholic beverages, including the Food and Drug Administration, the Federal Trade Commission, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) and the TTB. Understanding the history of alcohol labeling means sifting through a dizzying series of rulings and memorandums involving these agencies, which at various times held sway over the issue. Today, matters related to the production of alcoholic beverages are mainly the provenance of the TTB, which was established in 2003.

Alcoholic beverages currently have no nutrition labels because in 1993 the ATF rejected a petition to require the kind of labeling that the FDA mandates for food and other beverage products. There was not enough consumer interest, the ATF reasoned, or sufficiently convincing evidence that nutrition labeling would prove useful to consumers.

Two decades earlier, the ATF had decided against requiring full ingredient labeling for alcoholic beverages. It cited several reasons, including the cost of implementing the labels, the existing regulation of alcohol content and the difficulty that labels pose in international trade negotiations. The 1975 ruling also reasoned that such labels would be "of little value and, in certain cases, even misleading" to consumers and that "ingredient labeling is supported by only a small segment of the public."

Alcohol content by volume has been allowed on beer labels only since 1995, when a Supreme Court case filed by Adolph Coors Co. overturned a 1935 law forbidding it.

But times are changing. In the midst of a national obesity epidemic, the public has become increasingly health conscious.

Still, the future of both alcohol nutrition labeling and the blood alcohol limit remains unclear. The TTB ruling isn't the final word, and the agency will continue to mull proposed rules to make nutrition labeling mandatory. The NTSB's recommendation is not binding, although it could go a long way in influencing policymakers.

But Waldrop is hopeful. "We kind of see it as a first step forward," he said of the TTB decision. As for the blood alcohol recommendation, Hersman suggests "this is a debate that will continue."

Although she said she hadn't considered it before, Hersman agreed that the two issues may be intertwined. "Certainly, talking about this and getting information out will make people more aware," she said.



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