Alcoholism was becoming a concern of the American public before it was even officially recognized as a disease. Prohibition in the 1920s did little to curb the desire for alcohol and increased the power of organized crime mobs that specialized in the illegal production and sale of alcoholic beverages. As early as 1945, the federal government had attempted to place warning labels on alcoholic beverages.
The mid-1940s experienced a push from multiple state legislatures for the provision of medical treatment rather than penal methods for those affected by alcoholism, and to inform the public of alcohol’s harmful effects. According to the American Journal of Public Health (1946), Alabama legislation established a Commission on Education with respect to alcoholism in order to “prepare and administer a program for the rehabilitation of alcoholics and the education of the public with respect to dealing with alcoholism as a disease.”
As stated in the American Journal of Psychiatry in 1946, the Massachusetts Legislature formed a special commission to investigate the problems of drunkenness in Massachusetts in 1943. In 1945, a proposal was presented before the commission advocating the implementation of health warning labels on alcoholic beverages, using the following language: “Directions for use: Use moderately and on successive days. Eat well while drinking, and if necessary, supplement food by vitamin tablets while drinking. Warning: if this beverage is indulged inconsistently and immoderately, it may cause intoxications (drunkenness), later neuralgia and paralysis (neuritis) and serious mental derangement such as delirium tremens and other curable and incurable mental diseases, as well as kidney and liver damage.” The warning label initiative was rejected.
During the 1970s, research on the effects of alcohol was revealing the harmful results that alcohol consumption had on pregnant women and the subsequent births of their babies. In 1974, the term Fetal Alcohol Syndrome was developed to describe the variety of birth defects such as mental retardation and malformations of infants of alcoholic mothers. On February 8, 1979, a proposal by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration recommended placing warning labels on alcoholic products in an effort to warn the public of alcohol’s dangerous side effects on pregnant women. The strongly worded initiative was rejected by the Treasury Department’s Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms, who were actually responsible for regulating the alcoholic beverage industry and controlling labeling.
In May 1979, Senators Thurmond and Hatch presented an amendment for the NIAAA program to mandate the following warning on all alcoholic products: “Caution: Consumption of alcoholic beverages may be hazardous to your health.” Although the amendment was adopted by the U.S. Senate, it was never heard or voted on by the House of Representatives.
Throughout the 1980s, a push for the labeling was made by various local and state legislations. In California, the Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act of 1986 came into effect, which recognized alcohol as a reproductive toxin. The proposition mandated that substances sold to consumers containing recognized toxins must include the following label: “WARNING: This product contains chemicals known to the State of California to cause cancer and birth defects or other reproductive harm.” Later in 1988, warning posters were required to be posted in places of business retailing alcoholic beverages throughout California.
Thurmond again proposed the implementation of warning labels to the Senate in 1988 in an attempt to combine the hazards of alcohol during pregnancy and the general health risks – an omnibus drug bill that finally passed. The bill mandated the use of the following warning labels in rotation:
- WARNING: The Surgeon General has determined that the consumption of this product, which contains alcohol, during pregnancy can cause mental retardation and other birth defects.
- WARNING: Drinking this product, which contains alcohol, impairs your ability to drive a car or operate heavy machinery.
- WARNING: This product contains alcohol and is particularly hazardous in combination with some drugs.
- WARNING: The consumption of this product, which contains alcohol, can increase the risk of developing hypertension, liver disease, and cancer.
- WARNING: Alcohol is a drug which may be addictive.
The revised bill initiated on November 19, 1989 changed the wording to: “l. 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.” The law also required the health warning to appear in a “conspicuous and prominent” place on all alcoholic products, and in 1993 was petitioned to improve the visibility, legibility and clarity of its text. In February of 1990, the Treasury Department ordered the warning label to include the heading “Government warning” in capital letters before the warning.
Although the warning label has gone under much scrutiny over the years regarding its effectiveness, this label still appears on alcohol, wine, and distilled spirits today.