Hill’s liquor label bill uncorks some whines

Legislation was offered in Congress yesterday that would require tough health warnings be attached to beer and wine commercials, a proposal that drew the wrath of special interest groups ranging from brewers to broadcasters.

The bill, offered in the House by Reps. Joe Kennedy (D-Mass.) and John Conyers (D-Mich.) and in the Senate by Paul Simon (D-Ill.) and Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.), is nearly identical to legislation that has failed to gain much support in previous sessions of Congress. However, opponents worry that it may not be so easy to bottle up this bill, particularly since Vice President Al Gore supported the measure while serving in the Senate.

“We’re in a new era of political correctness,” lamented one lobbyist who is fighting the bill, “and health reform seems to be a big priority for the new administration.”

The bill would require all alcoholic beverage ads in both the broadcast and print media to carry one of seven rotating health messages.

For broadcasters and cablers, all beer and wine blurbs would be followed by the phrase “Surgeon General’s Warning.” One of seven warnings would then be flashed on the TV screen and read aloud:

o “If you are pregnant, don’t drink alcohol. Alcohol may cause mental retardation and other birth defects.”

o “If you are under the age of 21, it’s illegal to buy alcoholic beverages.”

o “Alcohol is a drug and may be addictive.”

o “Drive sober. If you don’t, you could lose your driver’s license.”

o “Don’t mix alcohol with over-the-counter, prescription or illicit drugs.”

o “If you drink too much alcohol too fast, you can die of alcohol poisoning.”

o “Drinking increases your risk of high blood pressure, liver disease and cancer.”

A toll-free number would be displayed allowing viewers to obtain more information on the dangers of excessive drinking.

The Dept. of Health and Human Services would be charged with writing the regulations, with enforcement handled by the Federal Trade Commission.

Backing the bill is a host of medical and public interest groups, including the influential American Medical Assn. AMA exec veepee James Todd said the health warnings are “a reasonable and unrestrictive approach necessary to balance the unrelenting messages the alcoholic beverage and advertising industries are successfully promoting.”

The notion that health warnings will reduce alcohol abuse or drunk driving was disputed by the Coalition to Protect Jobs and Free Speech, a group of labor unions, brewers, broadcasters and advertisers formed to lobby against the bill. The coalition said legislation would result in a loss of jobs in the brewing industry and a shift in sports programming from “free TV” to pay-per-view.

Jeff Perlman, VP of the American Advertising Federation, said sports viewers will be especially hurt because beer and wine advertisers simply won’t pay for blurbs that are “cluttered” with an anti-drinking message. The result will be a shift of sports programming to PPV, he predicted, since “TV cannot begin to replace the dollars that will be lost by the removal of beer commercials.”

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