- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 29, 2001

Editor's Note: Steve Chapman is on vacation. The following column was originally published in February 1999.

In olden times, kings and emperors trampled on the rights of their people simply because they had the power to do so. In modern democracies, governments often encroach on liberties, but they always do it with the comforting assurance that it's for our own good. Increasingly, the only freedoms entrusted to ordinary people are the ones that have been certified as harmless.

The public-health school of thought believes that we have a duty to take good care of our bodies and that enforcing this duty is government's noblest purpose. The result is an assortment of assaults on tobacco — banning smoking in office buildings and restaurants, raising cigarette taxes to onerous levels, bringing tobacco under the formidable regulatory authority of the Food and Drug Administration, and suing the pants off cigarette makers for having the nerve to supply willing consumers with a legal product.

With tobacco virtually vanquished, the next inviting target for the nanny state is alcohol, which has not been so besieged since Carry Nation was doing the Lord's work by busting up saloons. Drinking has been on a steady decline for a decade and a half, but anti-alcohol forces aren't content to see individual adults cheerfully electing to reduce their consumption. They insist on enlisting government power to push more people into making the approved choice.

For years, the wine industry has asked the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms to let it discreetly publicize research on moderate drinking. On Feb. 5, 1999, the agency grudgingly agreed to permit wine labels advising consumers to consult their physicians or the government's official dietary guidelines to learn more about “the health effects of wine consumption.”

Winemakers have some interest in this matter because scientific studies show that drinking can be good for your health. The federal guidelines note that “moderate drinking is associated with a lower risk for coronary heart disease in some individuals.” The American Heart Association goes further: “The incidence of heart disease in those who consume moderate amounts of alcohol (an average of one to two drinks per day for men and one drink per day for women) is lower than in nondrinkers.”

Note that the labels don't mention “health benefits,” though bottles are already required to carry a stern warning that alcohol “may cause health problems.” But even the neutral language was enough to send the industry's critics screaming from the room.

“Some consumers may interpret 'health effect' as 'health benefit' and end up drinking more than they should,” lamented the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), which possesses the wisdom to know exactly how much each of us “should” drink. The new labels, warned journalist Michael Massing in The New York Times, will “simply encourage more people to drink” and “drive moderate drinkers to drink more heavily, with potentially steep medical and social costs.”

This warning conjures up the bizarre image of whip-cracking vintners “driving” modest tipplers to chug those wine bottles or else. In fact, all the wine industry is permitted to do is invite consumers to acquire reliable data about alcohol, something truth-seeking journalists should not find inherently alarming.

Accurate, nondeceptive information is supposed to be good for consumers. But anti-drinking forces want to ban any communications that could possibly be good for sales of alcoholic beverages. Even more alarming than the new wine labels is the expansion of broadcast and cable advertising by makers of distilled spirits. Neo-Prohibitionists would dearly love to outlaw wine and beer commercials, and their aversion to bourbon and Scotch ads is more intense still.

The industry used to voluntarily refrain from this sort of marketing, only to see liquor consumption drop by 40 percent in the last two decades. Acting on the impeccable logic that alcohol is alcohol, whether it comes in a beer can or a highball glass, booze makers have decided it's only fair they should be able to air radio and TV ads the same as Budweiser and Fetzer. But CSPI insists that the campaign “flies in the face of a national policy designed to decrease alcohol consumption as part of a broad national-health initiative.”

Bureaucratic words, those, but translated into English, they have a clear meaning: Regardless of our personal preferences, people who hate alcohol have decided we should drink less. If they have to suppress honest communications between competent adults to achieve that goal, then censor they will.

Those of us with an atavistic desire to be left alone to make our own choices really ought to get over it. When all is said and done, we'll still have the one freedom worth having: the freedom to do what others think is good for us.

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