Drinking It In

July 18, 1995|By Patricia Meisol | Patricia Meisol,Sun Staff Writer

Clad in leotards and a T-shirt and accompanied by her 12-year-old daughter, Cary Black jogs up to the counter at Wells Discount Liquors on a sunny weekday morning to purchase a bottle of red wine. Shopping for wine is a ritual as sure as her thrice-weekly workout at the Towson Y.

"I believe that having a glass of wine with dinner is one of the healthier things I do," says the Towson mother of two.

In the past three years, wine sales have skyrocketed 65 percent at Wells and nearly 40 percent nationally. A host of wine industry experts attribute the dramatic rise to growing medical evidence that moderate amounts of alcoholic beverages, especially red wine, may reduce heart disease.

Wine groups armed with these studies have convinced Congress to fund research on the benefits of liquor and asked the government to pass along health news about liquor to doctors for distribution to patients. The Wine Institute, a group of California wine growers, is lobbying to change a mostly negative message about alcohol in U.S. Dietary Guidelines to one that says alcohol can be healthy.

Now, under pressure from a conservative business group that calls current government labeling of alcohol unfair, the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms is asking for medical evidence of the benefits of alcohol to decide whether the industry can make such health claims.

They are strongly opposed by some public health watchdogs, who say promoting alcohol could lead to more abuse in a society where at least one in 10 drinkers is an abuser.

"Alcohol is America's leading and most costly drug problem," says George Hacker, director of the alcohol policies project for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, which has challenged advertising and marketing campaigns of the alcoholic beverage industry since 1982.

"Our position is, if you drink moderately, one or so a day, no problem with that," he says. "But to suggest that people start drinking for their health, which is the agenda of the wine industry, is dangerous."

The alcohol industry probably doesn't need to make health claims on its labels to sell its products. The relentless drumbeat of one study after another -- frequently publicized by the industry -- has left many people with the perception that drinking wine, particularly red wine, is good for their health.

"I can't tell you how many times in a week a customer will come in and say 'I want to drink a bottle of red wine because I hear it is good for me,' " says Michael D. Hyatt, Wells' president. In the past few years, he says, studies publicized by the media have made red wine "not only OK, but also, by golly, therapeutic!"

The growing perception of wine as healthy, and the discussion of whether to tout its health benefits after nearly two decades of preaching its evils, can be traced directly to a "60 Minutes" broadcast in November 1991 on the so-called "French Paradox."

The paradox is that the French, despite a regular diet of such artery cloggers as cheese, pate, buttery croissants and cream-based sauces, have one of the lowest heart disease rates in the world. In an interview with Morley Safer, French researcher Serge Renaud attributed the country's relatively good health to another French habit -- daily doses of red table wine.

After the broadcast, U.S. wine sales shot up 40 percent, according to Impact magazine, a trade journal for the wine industry. The phenomenon set off calls from the industry to recognize the health benefits of liquor and sparked additional research, some of it funded by the federal government, notes Thomas Matthews, senior editor of the Wine Spectator, a magazine devoted to wine lovers.

For example, the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, which largely funds research into the consequences of problem drinking, now is funding research on the risks and benefits of moderate drinking. "That has an enormous ripple effect," Mr. Matthews says.

Other studies

The French Paradox is the most famous study of the health benefits of alcohol and helped focus attention on red wine, which appears to offer the most protection against heart disease. But there are dozens of others that focus on the advantages of moderate amounts of wine, beer or liquor.

More recent studies, including those in the New England Journal of Medicine and other prestigious journals, conclude that moderate alcohol consumption -- one to two drinks a day for women and two to three drinks for men -- reduces the risk of heart attacks by 25 percent to 40 percent. People who drink moderately also appear to live two to three years longer than those who abstain.

Now chemists and other scientists are trying to find reasons why alcohol may have this effect. Research to date shows that it increases the level of "good cholesterol" in the blood, thus preventing a buildup of fats that can lead to heart attacks.

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