WASHINGTON -- Federal authorities have begun a broad examination of malt liquor labeling and advertising in the wake of a controversy over G. Heileman Brewing Co.'s marketing of a new high-alcohol malt liquor in Baltimore and other cities.
Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms officials have asked Heileman to change the name of the product, PowerMaster, because they say it violates regulations prohibiting marketing appeals based on alcohol content.
Heileman is based in Wisconsin and has a plant in Halethorpe, Baltimore County, which makes PowerMaster, according to a Heileman distributor. PowerMaster went on sale this week in some Baltimore-area liquor stores.
While they await a response from Heileman, bureau officials are taking a second look at the marketing of all malt liquor products on the market.
"What we're looking at is to see if others are out there that have names that should not have been approved, or if they're being advertised in a way prohibited by the regulations," ATF spokesman Tom Hill told The Evening Sun yesterday.
Hill said the agency decided to undertake this "re-examination" of malt liquor marketing in light of the mistake the agency now believes it made in approving the name PowerMaster. ATF must approve names of product before they're sold.
Though Hill did not suggest that ATF was changing its policies, the agency's action is consistent with the increasing attacks on alcohol and tobacco by Health and Human Services Secretary Louis W. Sullivan and Surgeon General Antonia C. Novello.
Novello also has demanded that Heileman change the PowerMaster label and shift its marketing strategy away from poor blacks, whom she says are at high risk for alcohol-related health problems.
Neither Heileman officials nor representatives of the malt liquor industry returned telephone calls yesterday.
The bureau sent Heileman a letter last Thursday requesting that it delete "Power" from the product's name. A meeting with company officials is scheduled Tuesday.
The bureau sent the letter after black leaders complained about PowerMaster's high alcohol content and the apparent targeting of low-income, inner-city consumers. Malt liquors are especially popular among blacks.
Novello and a coalition of 21 advocacy groups joined the attack on PowerMaster this week. Novello termed Heileman's marketing plans for PowerMaster "socially irresponsible."
PowerMaster is 5.9 percent alcohol, according to federal officials. That compares with 4.5 percent for Colt 45 malt liquor, made by Heileman in Halethorpe and the second-best-seller to Schlitz Malt Liquor, also at 4.5 percent. Conventional beer is 2.5 to 4 percent alcohol.
Novello said an interagency task force is being formed to determine whether federal rules should be changed to require brewers to disclose the alcohol content of their products on labels. She said consumers buying PowerMaster might not be aware that one bottle is equivalent to drinking two or three beers.
"It's true this is a legal product, but the problem is that they are targeting some populations that are already very prone" to health risks, Novello said in an interview in the Washington Post yesterday. "In a subconscious way, I think they think these people are expendable."
She cited a federal health study indicating that black men ages 25 to 44 are 10 times more likely than the general population to die of cirrhosis of the liver.
The coalition of advocacy groups wants Heileman to stop selling PowerMaster and is urging the government to ban malt liquors that contain more alcohol than regular beer and to "disallow the use of names connoting strength and violence, such as Colt .45, Magnum and PowerMaster."
Annapolis Alderman Carl Snowden said this week he will "introduce a resolution before City Council on July 8 asking citizens to boycott establishments that sell PowerMaster." He said he also will draft a letter to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Maryland General Assembly's Black Caucus asking for their help in ending sales.