National Consumers League

Food

NCL Food Issues

Statement of NCL’s Sally Greenberg on alcohol labeling

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On April 22, 2008, Sally Greenberg, NCL's Executive Director joined a panel of consumer advocates, public health officials and experts on alcohol at the National Press Club to speak about their 30-year fight with the U.S. Treasury to take action on standardizing acohol lableling

Good morning and thank you for coming. I am Sally Greenberg, the Executive Director of the National Consumers League based in Washington, DC. Joining me today is a panel of consumer leaders, public health officials and experts in alcohol issues. We will briefly summarize our positions and then be available for questions.

For the consumer community, the fight for a useful alcohol label is like the movie “Groundhog Day.” For more than 30 years, consumer groups have petitioned the government, filed lawsuits and testified on Capitol Hill. And for more than 30 years, nothing has changed. The federal agency responsible -- the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau or TTB and its predecessor agency -- has spent 30 years trying to decide if alcohol labeling – disclosing important information for consumers -- is really necessary.

Let’s talk about what can be accomplished in less than 30 years when there is the will to make meaningful change:

  • It took only eight years from when President Kennedy declared the goal of landing a man on the moon to when Neil Armstrong took his first step in July 1969.
  • It took 17 years to conduct the research that lead to the first polio vaccine.
  • And it took 28 years from the laying of the first brick of the Berlin Wall in 1961 to when it began to come down in 1989.

If these feats can be accomplished in less than 30 years, why are we still fighting for a standardized alcohol label? On behalf of the nation’s public health and nutrition organizations, consumer advocates, leading public health officials and consumers themselves, we say it is time for TTB to issue a useful final regulation requiring alcohol labeling. And by “useful,” we mean the same kind of standardized labeling information on beer, wine and distilled spirits products that is now required for conventional foods, dietary supplements, and nonprescription drugs.

In 2005, we thought we were close. TTB had issued a request for public comments and received over 18,000 letters. The vast majority of these comments supported a standardized label listing the number of calories and the amount of alcohol per serving as well as standard drink information.

But, by 2007, we were back to Groundhog Day. TTB published a rule proposing to require a “Serving Facts” panel on beer, wine and distilled spirits. But TTB left out the most important information consumers need when consuming an alcoholic beverage -- the amount of alcohol in a serving. This omission resulted in another barrage of letters from consumers and public health leaders, all calling for complete information on the label.

Now that TTB has heard all the arguments, we are here to urge TTB to get it right by mandating a standardized alcohol label that tells Americans what they need to know -- the alcohol content, the amount of alcohol in a serving, the definition of a standard drink, the number of calories and facts about other ingredients.

Towards this end, today, we are issuing a new report laying out the need for a standardized and complete alcohol label. Based on a review going back to 1977, this report makes a compelling case that over-consumption of alcohol remains a serious problem. And part of the solution to reducing alcohol abuse, drunk driving, obesity, and the many diseases attributable to excessive alcohol intake is to give consumers an easy-to-read, uniform label with complete information about alcohol and calorie content per serving.

In addition to this new report, we want TTB to hear from consumers themselves -- which is why we have commissioned Opinion Research Corporation to survey 1,003 adult Americans aged 21 and over this month. Reinforcing the findings of numerous other polls conducted over the years, this poll shows consumers want government policy to change.

Moreover, this poll documents the kind of information Americans want on a standardized alcohol label. According to the ORC poll, first and foremost, consumers want alcohol labels to list the alcohol content and the amount of alcohol per serving.

Our new poll also validates the usefulness of alcohol labels to educate consumers about following the Dietary Guidelines’ advice on moderate drinking -- which is defined as up to one drink per day for women and up to two drinks a day for men. When asked if Americans should follow this advice, seven in ten respondents -- 71 percent -- agreed and almost six in ten -- 58 percent -- said they would use the alcohol label for this purpose. These findings reinforce a previous online survey conducted for Shape Up America! in December 2007, which reported that 79 percent of consumers would support alcohol labeling that summarizes the Dietary Guidelines’ advice.

With both the public health community and consumers demanding change, the question for TTB is not whether but when. The same nation that put a man on the moon and made it possible to tear down the Berlin Wall should be able to give its citizens useful labeling information on beer, wine and distilled spirits. As a matter of improved public health, this is the right thing to do.

To explain what information should be on this label and the health justifications, I would now like to introduce the other panelists here today:

  • First, you will hear from Chris Waldrop, Director of the Food Policy Institute at the Consumer Federation of America. Chris will outline what consumer organizations and the public health community believe are the essential components of an alcohol label;
  • Then, you will hear from J.T. Griffin, V.P. Public Policy, of Mothers Against Drunk Driving or MADD, who will summarize the views of those working to curb drunk driving and alcohol abuse.
  • After J.T., Dr. Winston Price, past President of the National Medical Association, will summarize the public health justification to better alcohol labeling.
  • And finally, Dr. Barbara Moore, president and CEO of Shape Up America!, will focus on the Dietary Guidelines for Americans and how a useful alcohol label can affect consumer change.

Please hold your questions until the panelists have presented their remarks and then we will be pleased to take your questions.