Beer cans forbidden to list the alcohol you're drinking

June 15, 1994|By ROGER SIMON

WASHINGTON -- If you buy a can of soda, the government demands that the label tell you how much fat, sodium, carbohydrates, sugar, protein and calories you are getting.

But if you buy a can of beer, the government demands that the label not tell you how much alcohol you are getting.

Wine labels must tell you. Whiskey labels must tell you. But beer labels can't tell you.

This ludicrous situation results from a 1935 post-Prohibition law when the government was afraid brewers would compete for customers by making the strongest beer they could.

In modern times, however, customers have shown a desire for lighter, less-alcoholic beers. But the government is sticking to its outdated law.

In 1987, Adolph Coors Co., challenged the law in federal court on free speech grounds and won. The government appealed, and Coors won at the appellate level. The government has appealed again, and this week the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case.

Because of the long-standing government ban, most Americans have no idea how much alcohol is in the malt beverages they drink. Which can lead to trouble.

If you are used to drinking a couple of Budweisers after work and then switch to McEwans Scotch Ale one evening, you might be headed for a surprise: Budweiser has a 4.65 percent alcohol content by volume, while McEwans has 9.51 percent.

"People have no idea what potency they are drinking," said Gil Osenburg, who runs Racers' bar in Parkville. So several years ago, Osenburg started posting the alcohol content of each beer he sells on a chalkboard.

"I think people should know what they are drinking," he said. "It just makes sense."

Ten states currently require some beer labels to show whether they have alcohol above or below a certain content, but this can lead to more confusion than education.

If you buy a six pack of Original Coors in a supermarket in Colorado, for instance, it will be labeled: "Not more than 3.2 percent max alcohol [by weight]."

But if you buy a six-pack of Original Coors in a liquor store next door, it will not only have no label on it, but it also will have more alcohol in it: 3.6 percent by weight.

That might not sound like a big difference and it isn't. But if you are pulled over by a cop and you are found to be over the maximum allowable blood alcohol limit even by a hundredth of a percent, you are going to be in huge trouble. And you should be.

So shouldn't you be able to know if you are drinking a beer with 2.5 percent alcohol or 3.5 percent or 5.5 percent?

The government says no. Government lawyers argue that if alcohol content is on a beer label, a "particular type of beer drinker" will "choose a beer based on its alcohol strength."

The 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that this was "mere speculation and conjecture," and Coors will argue before the Supreme Court that, in fact, the opposite is true.

"Canada has required such alcohol labeling on beer since 1976," Janet Rowe, a Coors spokeswoman, told me yesterday, "and there has been a steady trend toward lighter beers with lower alcohol contents."

In Canada, Rowe said, 67 percent of consumers know the alcohol content of the beer they drink, while in the United States only 30 percent know that it commonly ranges from 2 percent to 6 percent.

But Americans want information: Coors just brought out a new "clearmalt" product called Zima, which has an 800 number on the bottle. Since January, Coors has received 109,000 phone calls about Zima.

"And 53,000 of those calls are from people wanting to know what the alcohol content is," Rowe said. "We can tell them on the phone -- it's about 3.7 percent by weight -- but we can't tell them on the label."

If this makes no sense to you, welcome to the wonderful world of government.

"All we want to be able to do is tell consumers on a can how much alcohol they are getting," Rowe said. "We are not going to use it in advertising. We just think people ought know so they can know whether they want to drink three cans of Coors or one can of Killian's Red or whatever."

Osenburg feels the same way about the customers in his bar.

"We think people should know how much alcohol they are drinking," he said. "Otherwise, how do you know when to say when?"

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