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Health Benefits of Wine Consumption: April 2006

Responsibly Communicating The Health Benefits of Wine

Throughout the mass media, consumers are hearing about the possible health benefits of wine consumption. Wine marketers must walk fine line in discussing the topic. Some outsiders view the industry as a pariah and would rather hear nothing of the subject. While at the other extreme are those in the trade who read any bit of positive news demonstrating the health benefits of wine as a green light to encourage everyone to lift a glass and then some.

There’s a balance to be achieved: “The commercial interest of the trade as a whole is for alcohol consumers to drink regularly but moderately into a very long old age… If anyone in the trade believes that encouraging maximum drinking per session is more profitable…they are simply not commercially literate” (Sutton 2006, p. 7).

Wineries must be judicious and contemplate seriously the messages they send to consumers. While Vally and Thompson’s research shows that “wine triggers allergic reaction in only a small percentage of sulfite-sensitive asthmatics” (Van Zanten 2006, p.56), you wouldn’t want to own a winery making the 10:00 o’clock news for encouraging an unknown sensitive asthmatic to imbibe for the health benefits. Likewise, some potential alcoholics are not aware of their sensitivity to the disease.

The Dangers of Touting the Benefits

Anytime the wine industry is too enthusiastic in its promotion of the potential health benefits of wine there is a risk of fanning the flames of the neo-prohibitionist fire. Many in the wine industry dismiss prohibition as a quaint relic of the past, yet neo-prohibitionist forces are at work today.

While full scale prohibition will likely never return in the United States, fragmented prohibition exists throughout the country, a consequence of giving every state the right to establish its own alcoholic beverage laws in exchange for repealing the Volstead Act. There is a hodgepodge of restrictions concerning days and hours of sale, sales outlets, and the battle over direct shipping from wineries to consumers. “The legacy of Prohibition has made it extremely difficult to promote and sell wine across the country” (Anon 1999, p. 104).

I grew up in Pennsylvania where I could only purchase wine in a state run store, from civil servants who may or may not have taken an interest in wine. And I could never buy wine on Sundays. The lack of an open market meant that a less than adequate selection of wine from around the world was the norm in all but the most urban State Stores. It is this experience which informs my view that wine marketers must tread lightly so as to avoid a backlash.

“Neo-prohibitionists are seek to outlaw direct wine sales via the Internet, conjuring up visions of teenage rampages fuelled by cases of Californian Zinfandel” (Anon 1999, p. 104 ). The US alcoholic beverage wholesalers lobby has been complicit in this fear mongering by maintaining the pretence of protecting minors from purchasing wine. They state that: “alcohol control systems provide for controlled access to prevent minors from obtaining alcohol; retailers engaged in face-to-face transactions are better able ensure minors do not purchase alcohol” (Wine & Spirits Wholesales of America 2006). This position is repeated in every news story about direct shipping and as a consequence many consumers have come to believe it.

Head in the Sand

Even when members of the wine industry encourage moderate and responsible consumption, the message is treacherous to communicate: “We are not seen in that light by the media and this is something that we have to live with whilst doing our best to encourage moderation” (Sutton 2006, p. 7).

Some argue that in the absence of conclusive proof and with the danger of a backlash, steering well clear of the issue is the best option. It seems that an open discussion or even the suggestion that wine might be part of a healthy lifestyle is tantamount to billboard adverts in the schoolyard.

While doing nothing is a safer legal option for the wine industry, it does not take advantage of the benefits to be gained by a responsible mention of the current scientific findings.

‘Head in the Sand’ was the de facto position of the U.S. Government for years. “Since 1989, every bottle of beer, wine, and liquor sold in the United States has carried a two-part government warning that is by now almost as familiar as the bar code: "(1) According to the surgeon general, women should not drink alcoholic beverages during pregnancy because of the risk of birth defects. (2) Consumption of alcoholic beverages impairs your ability to drive a car or operate machinery, and may cause health problems” (Peele 1999, p. 52).

In a major shift and a positive one for wine producers, the USDHHS and USDA included the following recommendation in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2005: “Moderate alcohol consumption may have beneficial health effects in some individuals. In middle-aged and older adults, a daily intake of one to two alcoholic beverages per day is associated with the lowest all-cause mortality. More specifically, compared to non-drinkers, adults who consume one to two alcoholic beverages a day appear to have a lower risk of coronary heart disease” (USDHHS 2005, pp. 43-44).

“The 2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americans [later] eliminated language referring to the recommendation of drinking with meals. Furthermore, the recently released U.S. Food Guide Pyramid does not even include any prominent mention of drinking in moderation or with meals” (Holmgren 2006, p. 72).

Consult Your Doctor

“There have been many hints from pathologists’ autopsy studies as early as 1904 indicating an inverse relationship between coronary atherosclerosis and the presence of alcoholic cirrhosis or alcoholic cardiomyopathy (de Lorimier 2000, p. 357).

The link between alcohol consumption and benefits for the cardiovascular system gained prominent awareness in America with a piece on the news program, 60 Minutes in the early 1990s. “The ‘French Paradox’ was the discovery that despite their foie-gras-scoffing, Gauloise-smoking lifestyle, the French live longer and suffer less heart disease than the Americans (Anon 1999, p. 104).

“The physician is often the person best qualified to synthesize the relevant information and give sound advice to his or her patient. Prevention as well as treatment of disease has always been a prime objective” (Ecker & Klatky 2001).

Yet physicians, like wine makers and marketers, walk a fine line. “Physicians find themselves between Scylla and Charybdis regarding alcohol consumption, conflicted by information about benefits of moderate drinking and the manifest misery which alcoholism causes. Many decide simply to ignore the subject. Others choose a "one size fits all" course, advising reduced drinking or abstinence because of alcohol's potential for harm. Such approaches might potentially be harmful to the health of some individuals. They are inadequate in light of current epidemiological data about health effects of alcohol” (Ecker & Klatky 2001).

Representatives of the wine industry adopted the ‘Consult Your Doctor’ approach in its negotiations with the U. S. Government. “[In 1999], the BATF [today the TTB] finally approved the Wine Institute's language, along with a label from California's Laurel Glen Winery that urged consumers to "consult your family doctor about the health effects of wine consumption" (Peele 1999, p. 53).

The label changes left the industry open to accusations of being as mercenary and self-serving as the tobacco industry. “Although critics charge the labels are used by the wine industry as a marketing tool to sell more wine, De Luca [of the Wine Institute at that time] said that’s not true. Few wineries actually use the labels and at least one government study found that 88 percent of consumers pay no attention to the health labels, said De Luca” (Tesconi 2000, p. A5)

The storm did not abate and a moratorium was imposed on the approval of wine labels mentioning possible health benefits. It was not until 2003 that the moratorium was lifted on the TTB’s “approval of health-related directional statements, such as a wine label referring consumers to the U.S. Government's "Dietary Guidelines for Americans" to learn the health effects of wine consumption or to their family doctors for such information. The TTB determined that wine, beer and spirits could carry directional health statements, provided a disclaimer is included such as ‘This statement should not encourage you to drink or increase your alcohol consumption" (Wine Institute 2003).

Advocate a Healthy Lifestyle

In ‘Growing the Consumer Base’, Larry Lockshin recapped an analysis he had done for the Australian Winemakers’ Federation Wine Marketing Reference Committee. In his list of potential drivers of increased global wine consumption, he included the driver ‘health awareness’ under the heading ‘Lifestyle shifts in favour of wine’ (Lockshin, 2001, p. 78).

“It may be that the potential benefits of moderate wine consumption with a balanced food intake and healthy life-style are inseparably intertwined” (van Zanten 2006, p. 97).

“Emerging research has also discovered that the pattern of drinking with food may be of significant benefit. Holmgren also noted the following important research findings from the last year, which underline the importance of consuming wine with food, moderate wine consumption, a healthy diet and a healthy lifestyle:

“A recent study from the State University of New York at Buffalo found that a woman drinking alone and not eating is more likely to be causing damage to her liver than a woman drinking the same amount while dining with a friend” (Holmgren 2006, p. 71).

“Moderate drinkers were found to be in overall better health than non-drinkers, according to a U.S. study conducted by Oregon Health and Science University, in collaboration with the Kaiser Permanente, Centre for Health Research in Portland” (Holmgren 2006, p. 70).

“Furthermore, the investigators suggested they did not believe that better health is a result of moderate drinking, but that it has been reported that moderate drinkers tend to lead healthier and more balanced lifestyles…In the most recent research study published in the British Medical Journal, the Mediterranean diet is associated with longer life expectancy among elderly Europeans. The Mediterranean diet is characterized by a high intake of vegetables, legumes, fruits and cereals; a moderate to high intake of fish; a low intake of saturated fats but high intake of unsaturated fats, particularly olive oil; a low intake of dairy products and meat and a modest intake of alcohol, mostly as wine” (Holmgren 2006, pp. 70-71).

“Another recent study investigated the single and combined health effect of dietary and lifestyle factors in a European population Adhering to a Mediterranean diet, moderate alcohol use, physical activity and non-smoking were associated with a lower risk of all-cause mortality” (Holmgren 2006, p. 71).

It’s Not Hard Liquor

Another approach that most new world producers will not use in their press releases, though will certainly benefit from, is the ‘At least it’s not hard liquor’ campaign. “With the Chinese Government’s campaign to promote the health benefits of moderate wine consumption, against grain-based alcoholic drinks, the demand for low-alcohol red wine is on the rise in China’s richer coastal areas” (Qin, 2004, p. 104).

The science is evolving

Just when wine marketers (and the author of this paper) thought that enough evidence has been accumulated, another study muddies the subject. Assumptions and methodology behind the studies showing a positive benefit to wine consumption, such as in the following study, are coming under fire: “In a Danish study, the investigators concluded, ‘persons with stable patterns of light and moderate alcohol intake had the lowest all-cause mortality” (Holmgren 2006, p. 70).

“The long-held belief that moderate drinking reduces risk of a heart attack is based on flawed data and is most likely wrong…’Our results suggest that light drinking is a sign of good health, and not necessarily its cause’, said epidemiologist Kaye Fillmore of the UC San Francisco School of Nursing” (Maugh II 2006, p. A11).

“The new findings…are an outgrowth of ideas first proposed 15 years ago by Dr. A.G. Shaper of the Royal Free Hospital School of Medicine in London. In his studies on heart disease and death, Shaper observed that many people who abstained from alcohol did so because of advancing age, serious illness or the use of drugs whose effects were altered by alcohol. He has warned since then that counting such people as abstainers in alcohol studies would bias the results because their increased likelihood of disease and death was unrelated to the fact that they didn’t drink” (Maugh II 2006, p. A11).

“Fillmore’s team identified 54 papers that examined the health effects of drinking…Only seven of the studies had only long-term abstainers in that group…All seven of those studies showed no benefit from moderate drinking” (Maugh II 2006, p. A11).


Responsibly communicating the claimed health benefits of wine is fraught with difficulty even for the best intentioned wine marketer. The science is still evolving. While some people in the wine industry want to sell wine on its health benefits, others find it best to steer clear of the subject for today. Yet there is fine line that can be walked, which balances the understanding that wine can be both dangerous and beneficial at the same time.

Check out the following sources for more information on the subject:

(i) Ambler, T. 1996, ‘Can Alcohol Misuse be Reduced by Banning Advertising’? International Journal of Advertising, Vol. 15: 2, pp. 167-175.
(ii) Anon 1999, ‘WINE SURVEY – The disappearing drinker’, The Economist (US), Vol 353, pp. 104-105.
(iii) de Lorimier, A. 2000, ‘Wine and Health’, The American Journal of Surgery, Vol. 180, pp. 357-361.
(iv) Ecker, R. & Klatsky, A. 2001, ‘Doctor, Should I Have A Drink? An Algorithm for Health Professionals’, Presented at the New York Academy of Sciences conference, Alcohol and Wine in Health and Disease, Palo Alto, California.
(v) Holmgren, E. 2006, ‘Does The Pattern of Drinking Matter?’, Wines & Vines, Vol. 87(2), pp. 70-72.
(vi) Lockshin, L. 2001, ‘Growing the Consumer Base’, Australian and New Zealand Wine Industry Journal, Vol 16(3), May-June, pp. 77-78.
(vii) Maugh II, T. 2006, ‘Study questions health benefits of drinking’, Press Democrat, 30 March, p. A11).
(viii) Peele, S. 1999, ‘Bottle battle: The latest fight over wine labels is part of the ongoing struggle between wets and drys’, Reason, October, pp. 52-54.
(ix) Qin, Y. 2004, ‘Australian Wine Exports: Can They Prosper in China?’, The Australian & New Zealand Grapegrower & Winemaker, no. 488, September, pp. 104-108.
(x) Sutton, B. 2006, ‘Balancing Moderate Drinking with Social and Responsibility Issues’, Alcohol and Health, Current Evidence, Future Trends, AIM Forum, March, hosted by the Wine and Spirit Education Trust, Bermondsey, England.
(xi) Teconi, T. 2000, ‘Health labels on wine still hot issue’, Press Democrat, pp. A1 & A5.
(xii) U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and U.S. Department of Agriculture 2005, Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 6th Edition, Washington, DC, pp. 43-45.
(xiii) Unwin, T. 1992, ‘Images of alcohol: perceptions and the influence of advertising’, Journal of Wine Research, 3(3), pp. 205-233.
(xiv) van Zanten, R. 2006, Wine and Society, Study Guide, University of Adelaide, Adelaide.
(xv) van Zanten, R. 2006b, Wine and Society, Course Information, University of Adelaide, Adelaide.
(xvi) Wine & Spirits Wholesalers of America, ‘Direct Shipment of Alcohol to Consumers’, [Online, accessed 3 March, 2006]. URL: http://wswa.org/public/policy/direct.html
(xvii) Wine Institute 2003, ‘Wine Institute Commends Treasury Department’s Decision to Lift Moratorium on Health-Related Directional Statements’, [Online, accessed 5 March, 2006]. URL: http://www.wineinstitute.org/communications/statistics/ttb_moratorium.htm .


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