GOVERNMENT considers changing labels on beer, wine, liquor

Thursday, May 24th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Federal regulators are exploring whether 10-year-old health warnings on beer, wine and liquor need to be made more prominent to catch the attention of consumers.

The Treasury Department's Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms began on Wednesday considering a proposal offered by a group of public interest groups that aims to make warning labels easier to find and read.

The advocates coalition doesn't seek to change the current wording of the government warnings. One says, ``Women should not drink alcoholic beverages during pregnancy because of the risk of birth defects.'' Another says drinking impairs ``the ability to drive a car or operate machinery.''

The coalition, which includes the Center for Science in the Public Interest and the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, has recommended four ways to make labels more noticeable. They would require that health-warning labels:

_Appear on the front of the container in a horizontal position.

_Appear in red or black type on a white background and be surrounded by a lined border.

_Make the first two words of the label _ ``government warning'' _ appear in capital letters and boldface type that is at least 15 percent larger than the rest of the text in the statement.

_Feature an icon depicting a triangle with an exclamation mark inside next to the warning statement.

Art DeCelle, general counsel of the Beer Institute, and Frank Coleman, spokesman for the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, said their groups are reviewing the matter.

Current regulations don't require that the health-warning label appear in a specific place on the container. Given that, the labels can appear in myriad ways, depending on the product. For some products, the label might run vertically on the side of a can, or wrapped around the neck of a bottle.

The coalition's plan was submitted to the ATF in November 1999.

The ATF said Wednesday it wants public and industry groups to weigh in on the proposal by Aug. 20 before it decides the matter.

``We're going to gather all the comments and weigh the evidence first,'' ATF spokesman Jim Crandall said.

Among other things, the agency wants interested parties to address the costs associated with adopting some or all the changes recommended by the coalition, whether consumers find the labels difficult to read or whether they even notice the warnings.

Congress created the labels in 1988, and ATF's regulations implementing the law took effect in late 1990.

The law says that warning labels should ``be located in a conspicuous and prominent place'' on the container. It left details to the ATF.

Among other things, the ATF's current regulations say the labels must be ``readily legible under ordinary conditions and must appear on a contrasting background.''

The Federal Trade Commission, in a letter to the ATF dated March 13, 2000, recommended that the bureau conduct consumer testing of any proposed changes relating to the labels.