Thursday, September 15, 2011

Under the Table on the Label

Interesting article about alcohol content being available on beer labels at DRAFT Magazine:

Whether you aim to drink moderately or immoderately, there are few bits of information handier than how much alcohol is in your beer. Planning to drive home later? Maybe that 12%-ABV barleywine isn’t the savvy choice. Looking to drown your woes and pass out on the couch? A low-calorie 3.2% lager may not yield the best results.

Odd, then, that this information is not always there. In some states, on some labels, hunting for that magic number can be fruitless. New York, for example, bans that information from labels on beer sold there. On the other hand, North Carolina requires it—but only for beers stronger than 6% ABV. In New Hampshire, the threshold is 12%.

Generally, most states leave it up to the breweries to decide whether or not to put the alcohol strength on the label. Often that decision depends on whether disclosing the alcohol content might help or hinder sales. Hence, drinkers of the country’s most popular light lagers—Bud Light, Miller Lite, Coors Light—don’t always know that their beverage of choice is typically 4.2% ABV.

It’s definitely a piece of information that I consider useful. Many craft brewers do list the ABV on their label, but there are also quite a few who don’t. It turns out that this is another area where brewers and beer drinkers are still being impacted by arcane alcohol laws passed in the wake of Prohibition’s repeal.

So, why hasn’t the federal government just gone ahead and required that useful piece of information across the board? The Treasury Department is considering whether to do just that. But for now, many regulations are based on another way of thinking: Under this older, post-Prohibition regime, sharing that information with consumers might be a bad idea.

In 1935, Congress passed a law prohibiting the disclosure of alcohol content on beer packaging. Why hide this information from the consumer? Basically, the fear was that consumers would opt for beers with more alcohol, and that brewers would compete for that demand by engaging in “strength wars”—a hypothetical public health problem. (Never mind the possibility that adults might make their own informed, responsible decisions. It’s a notion that rarely gets much traction in the world of liquor laws.)

That regime held sway until 1995, when the Supreme Court upheld the First Amendment right of Coors to print alcohol content on its packaging—unless state law otherwise forbids it. In a concurring opinion, Justice John Paul Stevens said that while Congress has the authority to preserve health by directly limiting alcohol content, it “may not seek to accomplish the same purpose through a policy of consumer ignorance. … [T]his statutory provision is nothing more than an attempt to blindfold the public.”

That court decision is now 16 years old, but the post-Prohibition attempt to “blindfold the public” for its own good still casts a shadow on the patchwork of state and federal labeling laws. For now, a state like New York can prohibit alcohol content on beer labels, and in most other places a brewery can choose to omit it.

Whether a brewer should be required to include the beer’s ABV on the label is up to debate. While in principle it might sound like a worthy requirement so that consumers can make better informed choices, all too often in practice such regulations have proven to be overbearing and have had unforeseen consequences on businesses usually leading to higher prices for consumers. But brewers should certainly not be barred by state law from listing their ABV if they so choose. States that prohibit it aren’t doing their citizens any favors as the benefits of transparency and disclosure should far outweigh any concerns about consumers seeking out higher alcohol beers to the detriment of their health. If all they’re after is more alcohol, they’re going to find a way to get it whether they know it’s in the beer or not.