NEWSPAPERS ARE OFTEN CHIDED for reporting only bad and depressing news, but on the nation's front pages last week appeared a tiding of considerable comfort and joy. The New York Times headline summarized it as follows: "In an About-Face, US Says Alcohol Has Health Benefits."
What!? Drinking can be good for you? Sure it can, and it's about time the government said so. For years, the Federal Dietary Commission insisted that "drinking has no net health benefit." Now, in a new version of its Dietary Guidelines for Americans, the commission acknowledges for the first time that "moderate drinking is associated with a lower risk for coronary heart disease for some individuals."
To be sure, the cardiovascular advantages of alcohol are not exactly a breaking story. "Wine," wrote King David in the 104th Psalm, beating the Federal Dietary Commission to the punch by about 3,000 years, "maketh glad the heart of man." Alcohol has been called "aqua vitae" -- the water of life -- since at least the 13th century. "This name is remarkably suitable," observed the philosopher Arnauld de Villeneuve, for liquor "prolongs life, clears away ill humors, revives the heart, and maintains youth."
The government's newfound appreciation for the medical benefits of alcohol raises a few questions, starting with why a country that boasts 86,000 dietitians requires a Federal Dietary Commission at all. And if we must have an official agency nagging us about our diet, couldn't it at least be one that keeps up with the scientific literature?
For there is by now a mountain of medical evidence that moderate consumption of alcohol dramatically lowers the risk of heart disease. A massive study written up five years ago in Lancet, the British medical journal, found that among men whose average alcohol intake was two drinks per day, the risk of a fatal heart attack was 37 percent lower than among nondrinkers. In 1988 The New England Journal of Medicine published the results of an even more massive study of 87,000 women. For those who had one or two drinks daily, the risk of coronary heart disease dropped 40 percent; the risk of ischemic stroke dropped 50 percent. The protection against heart disease offered by moderate drinking, the researchers concluded, was "remarkable."
Swallowing a little firewater lowers death rates by up to 20 percent, research by Kaiser Permanente and the American Cancer Society has shown. In fact, the health benefits of alcohol are so well established that even Consumer Reports recommends a daily snort or two. ("For most people, the benefits of restrained drinking clearly outweigh the hazards.") And then there are the French. They smoke more than we do, exercise less, eat more fat, have slightly higher cholesterol levels, and don't spend as much on health care. Yet -- because they enjoy a glass of vin rouge with every meal (and take their time while eating) -- they live longer than we do and have far fewer heart attacks.
So now that the government's nutrition guidelines confirm that moderate drinking can be good for your health, winemakers and brewers can advertise that fact, right?
Only if they want to go to prison.
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms -- the federal agency that showed such good judgment at Waco -- has long banned any mention of alcohol's beneficial effects from wine and liquor labels or advertising. In other words, it is illegal in America for bottlers and distillers to supply consumers with accurate information. Big Brother would rather we all remained ignorant.
More than eight months ago, the Competitive Enterprise Institute, one of Washington's feistiest think tanks, petitioned BATF for a rule allowing beverage producers to add a simple, straightforward statement of fact to their ads and labels: "There is significant evidence that moderate consumption of alcoholic beverages may reduce the risk of heart disease." In defiance of all the scientific evidence, in defiance of common sense, in defiance of the First Amendment -- and now in defiance of the federal government's own dietary guidelines -- BATF has so far refused to budge.
Some policies are so idiotic only a government bureaucrat could dream them up. "It's one thing to be barred from falsely shouting 'Fire!' in a crowded theater," says Sam Kazman, the Competitive Enterprise Institute's general counsel. "It's quite another story when you can't say 'L'chaim!' in a liquor store." Kazman points out that if Mondavi or Fetzer or Samuel Adams Beer Co. were to say what the Federal Dietary Commission has now said, BATF would have them shut down within 24 hours. "In vino veritas" -- in wine, there is truth. But try telling your customers the "veritas" about vino, and the federal bully boys will put you out of business.
Then again, it's been only 63 years since the 18th Amendment was repealed. Maybe BATF just needs a little more time to accept that Prohibition is over. For the rest of us, meanwhile, there is amber-colored liquid and the wisdom of King David. "Wine maketh glad the heart of man." Doth it ever.