Lowest Common Denominator Wine Legislation

Computer mock-up of Penfolds label courtesy AdelaideNow: http://www.adelaidenow.com.au

Computer mock-up of Penfolds label courtesy AdelaideNow: http://www.adelaidenow.com.au

Alcohol advertising has been prohibited in several countries in the last decade. Last month, Australian health lobbyists took matters a step further, demanding graphic health warnings on the front labels of all alcoholic beverages, from spirits and beer to even their genteel ‘lifestyle’ cousin, wine.

In AdelaideNow, prime print media for South Australia’s capital, the rhetoric went thus, “The campaign, led by a range of vocal groups including National Alliance for Action Against Alcohol, the Alcohol Policy Coalition, Vic Health and the Cancer Council of Victoria, has targeted a range of products from beer, spirits, mixers and wine in its aim to combat public health hazards resulting from risky drinking practices.”

I’m certain the Barossa and Clare valleys are in a complete tailspin about these manoeuvres in Australia, thus I find myself weighing in on the debate as their southern hemisphere cousin.

Nobody can deny that alcohol abuse is a scourge. Nobody can deny that irresponsible consumption can lead to health and social problems. Nobody can deny that anything not done in moderation is usually bad for you. Why then, the target painted on the back of the alcohol industry? Same reason why the so-called sin taxes always increase, irrespective of the budget tabled: it is an easy target for tax hikes, public ire and zealous health lobbyists.

It’s easy to label any industry, associated with the production of a non-essential product, as unnecessary, a luxury, or in the case of alcohol, downright socially destructive. Then I pose the question to all sane-minded people, going back to, anything not done in moderation is usually bad for you: Are we to have graphic warnings of hardening arteries and people unable to escape the confines of their bed-prisons on BigMac burger packaging? Are we to have graphic warnings of rotting teeth on Coca-Cola cans? Are we to have graphic pictures on sweet-packets of removed digits and dead-tissue due to diabetes? Do we need provocative warnings on mens’ magazines such as Playboy and FHM of herpes and other STD infections? With debt being the greatest issue in the Western world, should we not have warnings on credit cards?

The point is, in a healthy democracy, the common denominator determines the public need, not the lowest common denominator. In a democracy, the right of the layperson is paramount, the rights of the careless minority, secondary. When this unwritten rule is disregarded, you create a nanny-state. A de facto over-legislated and heavily policed society is created, where freedoms of the many are curtailed, because of the irresponsibility or carelessness of the few.

Would-be alcohol abusers would not be put off by a warning or even graphic imagery. Extreme abuse is an illness, an addiction, something that must be treated clinically and psychologically. Would-be abusers don’t do so, because the bottle looks attractive. They do so, because societal or personal pressures trump their own inherent education about the perils of abuse. Education is the answer; social programmes in badly affected communities are the answer, not defacing brands.

In fact, in the South African context, it is not the branded wines which cause the social ills associated with alcoholism. It is the bulk wine sold by the litre, in nondescript plastic containers. If anything, one should aim to formalise distribution and pack quantities, to curtail the misuse of the product in bulk by individuals, in addition to public education.

Wine in particular is a lifestyle product. Wine is supposed to be a romantic affair, paired with friends, family and excellent food. To degrade a millennia-old product of the vine, the nectar of the gods, to the level of a scapegoat for social ills, seems blatantly reactionary.  This is not to deny that abuse of the product can become barbaric. However, a certain type of person becomes an addict; a certain type of beverage does not an addict make.

I hate to place the wine-label debate in a religious context. At the same time, no other story can illustrate what is being said more clearly than the following: When Jesus multiplied the bread and fishes, when He turned water into wine, I doubt he intended anyone to eat two fishes and three loaves of bread in one sitting. I doubt He wanted anyone to be morbidly obese and develop heart-disease and diabetes. Just as I doubt He wanted anyone to consume three bottles of wine in one sitting. Therein lies the point, even the most righteous of things can become an evil if abused.

Everything in moderation! May sanity prevail; seeking responsible consumption and sales, public education and enlightenment, rather than a convenient scapegoat panacea for legislative zealots.

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