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On Raising Awareness about the Health Benefits of Moderate Wine Consumption

by Cyril Penn
June 18, 2019

Over the weekend, Rob McMillan of Silicon Valley Bank posted about slowing growth in the wine market, noting that young consumers are being frightened away from alcoholic beverages because of an onslaught of negative press from anti-alcohol groups.

"Today there is a growing trend toward wellness and that includes abstinence from any form of alcohol. Without any kind of response from the wine community to reference science that shows moderate wine consumption is healthy, we will see the negative trends continue," he said. 

McMillan suggested asking industry associations to keep valid moderate-consumption research at their fingertips to give journalists and lawmakers the other side of the anti-alcohol stories flooding the press. He noted that Wine Institute at one point had a full-time technical person dedicated to just that; suggested the position could be reinstituted; and proposed that other industry associations could do the same.

That reminded me of the interview John DeLuca gave me when he retired from Wine Institute - way, way back, in 2005.

It's inside baseball but provides context that's relevant to the conversaton today
(the full text of that interview can be found here)

I asked John Deluca to name his greatest public policy achievement.

WBM: What was your greatest public policy achievement? 

"The biggest breakthrough, not for me but for Wine Institute, was the Dietary Guidelines for 1995. People all of a sudden were amazed to read that a glass of wine could have cardiovascular benefits.

None of this was preordained, and none of this was predestined. Certain growers and vintners today think that declaration would have happened anyway. It did not. No. We were literally on the cusp of being decimated by lawsuits, by demands on advertising, by high taxes by being seen as a public health hazard. Many of the members who are coming in today may assume that by birthright progress is inevitable. We've been struggling for decades with these issues, and I'm concerned that they're not yet solidified, not yet entrenched in our society. It takes 50 or 100 years for these things to become part of the culture of a society, and it's a cultural process as much as a regulatory issue. I was looking at public policy to affect culture.

I insisted we not use public relations to exploit the French paradox. What I was talking about preceded it by many years. Long before the 60 Minutes broadcast about the French Paradox, I said, "We'd like funds to reestablish our agricultural roots, and there is a nutritional aspect to wine."

Similar expectations face our international program, which will surpass $800 million this year. We should keep in mind that it was almost snuffed out. Had we not passed the Wine Equity legislation, we would never again have had the conditions where we had a president that was from California, and a Cabinet of people we knew personally where I could go to them and say, "Don't listen to what these lobbyists are saying from the Midwest, don't listen to your Special Trade Representative, don't listen to the EU, don't listen to the Distilled Spirits Council; this is the right thing for us to do, and we'll either make it or not make it on our own merits."

The appropriations committee was giving funds to look at the health effects of drinking in moderation, and 73 RFAs (requests for applications) went out in 1996 and 1997, which started scientists and people in academia thinking they could be published if they did look at the effects. That's where my academic background helped: the whole thing is, publish or perish. If we hadn't put aside money for that purpose, researchers would have had less professional incentives.

A paper I wrote that was adopted as policy in 1990 was "Science and Research, the Path for Wine's Future." It said, "The position of wine in America today and all the multiple variables affecting its growth and future are dominated by a paramount core issue: is it a gateway drug whose very use is dangerous to the health of individuals in society, or is it a companion with meals, a legitimate component of the nation's lifestyle, and in moderation a dietary benefit to human health and nutrition? How the question is resolved will influence dramatically all our resources, investment policies and programs in the near decade and years to come."

The issue of wine's image, standing and integrity supercedes all other elements, game plans, business plans, marketing and personnel decisions. I proposed how we should go about it, which was basically to have multidisciplinary research by a consortium of universities and scientists get funding from the federal government. That's how we went about it. This was in 1990, and working for the 1995 dietary guidelines there was another dramatic moment for us. The Dietary Advisory Committee, in putting forward its recommendations still insisted on us being a "drug" with no benefits to consumption. That's how they left things in November of 1995.

When they were issued on January 3, 1996, it didn't say that. It didn't say alcohol was a drug. It said there were cardiovascular benefits. And that electrified the country, and Dr. Phil Lee, Assistant Secretary of Health, was quoted as saying that as far as he was concerned, wine in moderation with meals was healthy and should get out from under the shadow of the past and Prohibition. That was the quote of the day carried by the New York Times. Nationwide, over 100 million people had this on the networks and local stations.

That led to a backlash of criticism. How could it go from an advisory committee recommendation that it was a drug that had no benefit to having cardiovascular benefits?

Even though the guidelines said "for some individuals" in 1995, by 2000 they said, "for men over 45 and women over 55."

The new guidelines for 2005 went beyond cardiovascular benefits to all causes of mortality. That is a dramatic development.

The scientific community, not our public relations program, was producing these scientific papers. Our task was to ensure decision makers viewed these scientific papers. That's what occurred in 1995.

WBM: Why are the Dietary Guidelines so important?

The Dietary Guidelines are the official policy of the government on diet, lifestyle and nutrition. They are distributed to all the public health agencies, all the dietary clinicians. To have in there all the negatives associated with alcohol abuse is appropriate. It's balanced. But, for the first time in American history, it included paragraphs about the cardiovascular benefits of drinking in moderation. In terms of language on a page, it's miniscule in terms of the amount of words; but as an addition, it's dramatic, especially in a society that had Prohibition where it was outlawed to produce it or even consume it.

I've never argued the issue, I've said, that's for the scientists to discuss. The beer and spirits people never joined us; but after it was all in there, the spirits people continued their alcohol equivalency campaign, saying it's the alcohol in the product that gives you this beneficial effect. I said, "I'm not arguing with you, there are studies that say that, but there's also a growing body of research that says there's a premium for wine." Besides the alcohol, it does have resveratrol, quercetin and antioxidants.

Asking people to write in for the dietary guidelines became a huge issue when we got the Department of Treasury to agree we could have a label that was informational and directional, where we could say to consumers, "For more information on the dietary guidelines, write to the center for nutritional policy." They approved that after three years. Secretary of the Treasury Robert Rubin personally approved it. Then in 1999, Senator Strom Thurmond provoked a moratorium on the labels and requested the Inspector Generals from USDA and HHS investigate whether the Wine Institute and senior government officials "conspired to craft government policy" and documents in order to promote the use of alcohol.

Strom Thurmond and others recognized, even more than our own members, the significance of what had been achieved because they saw that as the turning point in their campaign to label us as a health hazard and as a turning point in terms of the legal profession having arguments to pursue class action lawsuits. If the federal government states officially that this product actually has health benefits, it undercuts the rush to litigation.

Thurmond wrote, "Ever since the wine industry began using these dietary guidelines to promote their product as part of a healthy lifestyle...." But we never did. It was all free press. We never once put out a press release citing ourselves as the experts that said wine was good for you. The media coverage of the subject as a public health policy would have more credibility than a public relations program we would launch.

Thurmond wrote, "I have been greatly concerned that public policy was manipulated for the purpose of marketing a potentially dangerous product. There is absolutely no excuse for public policy to be compromised."

He understood it was about public policy. Three separate bills were introduced—we defeated them all because he wanted to disallow the two new wine industry health messages for wine labels.

While they were paying attention to the alcohol plank in the dietary guidelines, researchers acquired greater acknowledgement in the introduction part of the dietary guidelines: Thurmond went on to say, "furthermore, the portion of the dietary guidelines regarding the benefits of moderate alcohol consumption have been moved from the end of the 1990 to the beginning of the 1995 version. Finally, several recommendations from the advisory committee were dropped from the final 1995 version, including reference to alcohol drug effects and a footnote underscoring the fattening nature of alcohol."

Our members and staff had put together in one package the scientific documents and sent them to the Secretaries of Health and Human Services and Agriculture, saying, "Your advisory panel is advisory to you, but their advice is not consistent with the science that has been produced. Please look at it." And that was compelling. It made it clear that the research was produced by third parties. This was science that had been published, and they did acknowledge it.

The Inspector Generals looked into my correspondence for two years on anything I might have done in that period. They finally concluded that everything had been above-board, part of the public process, that everything had been scientifically advanced."

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