Proposed US Guidelines Could Devastate Wine Industry

US May Follow WHO, Declare No Safe Level of Alcohol


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Fears are bubbling up in the wine industry that health authorities in the United States might soon label wine as unsafe to consume in any quantity. If you thought the wine business was facing tough times, brace yourself—its worst nightmare is looming on the horizon. Next year, the U.S. government's dietary guidelines might assert that there is no safe level of alcohol consumption.

The World Health Organization (WHO) already made this statement last year, and analysts have linked it to declining wine sales globally. But for a non-Islamic government like the U.S.—the world's largest wine market—to adopt a similar stance would be a devastating blow. Imagine the U.S. treating alcohol like Saudi Arabia does. The repercussions for the wine industry would be seismic.

Currently, U.S. dietary guidelines suggest that men can safely have two drinks per day, while women can have one. But what if these guidelines were to shift dramatically? A survey conducted by Wine Opinions of 2000 American drinkers last year paints a concerning picture. According to Wine Opinions CEO John Gillespie, when asked if they would change their drinking habits if the guidelines were as strict as Canada's (which recommend no more than two drinks per week), 66 percent of respondents aged 21 to 39 said they would cut back.

"The current guidelines are already pretty anti-alcohol," said Michael Kaiser, executive vice president of Wine America. "They recommend you don't start drinking if you haven't already and highlight the potential health risks of alcohol. However, they also state that the current drinking guidelines are safe for healthy adults. If these guidelines change, we will likely see a significant drop in consumption, especially among younger consumers, which is already a concern. Wine might become something reserved for special occasions only."

Tom Wark, executive director of the National Association of Wine Retailers, recently revealed on his blog that a "well-placed source" had seen the proposed wording for the 2025 dietary guidelines, which suggests there is no safe level of alcohol consumption. Though Wark didn't disclose his source, this potential change has alarmed members of Congress.

Last month, the House Committee on Oversight and Accountability sent a letter demanding the documents used in reviewing the relationship between alcohol and health. They argue that the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine (NASEM), which is supposed to review these guidelines, is not following the science. Instead, the review process has been handed over to the Interagency Coordinating Committee on the Prevention of Underage Drinking (ICCPUD).

Temperance and Politics: A Volatile Mix

This process mirrors how the WHO's anti-alcohol statement came to be. Journalist Felicity Carter of Wine Business Monthly highlighted how the WHO's stance on alcohol was influenced by Movendi, an international temperance group founded in 1851. Research showing that moderate alcohol consumption can be healthier than complete abstinence (the J-curve effect) was disregarded in favor of studies highlighting the dangers of alcohol abuse.

Adding fuel to the fire, an anti-alcohol conference held recently in a Washington DC suburb featured a seminar titled "Alcohol and Cancer: A New Litigation Strategy Against Large Producers." This suggests a future where wine producers might be sued like tobacco companies.

A History of Dietary Politics

The debate over government food guidelines isn't new. In 1981, the USDA under President Ronald Reagan infamously tried to classify ketchup as a vegetable to reduce the budget for public school lunches. While that didn't happen, the USDA still considers pickle relish a vegetable to this day. The politics surrounding alcohol, however, are unique and make for strange bedfellows.

Both current presidential candidates, Joe Biden and Donald Trump, claim to have never touched alcohol due to their families' histories with alcoholism. Trump's brother died from alcohol-related causes, and Biden's son Hunter has had highly publicized issues with substance abuse. It's not hard to imagine either candidate supporting stricter alcohol guidelines.

Congressional Concerns and Industry Responses

The letter to the National Academies was spearheaded by Oversight and Accountability committee chairman James Comer (R-Kentucky) and Lisa McClain (R-Michigan), chairwoman of the House Subcommittee on Health Care and Financial Services. Comer, known for his attempts to impeach Biden, represents Kentucky, a major whiskey-producing state. McClain, a staunch Trump supporter, is also Catholic—a religion that famously didn't give up drinking even during Prohibition.

Comer didn't respond to requests for comment, but Mike Thompson (D-CA), who represents Napa County and co-chairs the Congressional Wine Caucus, voiced his concerns: "It's worrying that the agencies reviewing our dietary guidelines are not using the best science and are not being transparent. Any changes should be based on solid, scientific evidence."

The new dietary guidelines won't be released until 2025, but the industry isn't sitting idly by. Tom Wark suggests that now is the time to contact your Congressional representatives to express your concerns. And maybe, just maybe, offer to buy them a drink while you're at it.

The next few years could redefine our relationship with wine. Whether it becomes a rare indulgence or remains a beloved staple in American culture will depend on the ongoing tug-of-war between science, politics, and public opinion. So, wine lovers, stay informed and raise your glasses—responsibly.

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