Diageo, DISCUS, & Voluntary Labels

ServingFactsLast week, the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) issued a ruling that allows alcohol producers to add "Serving Facts" labels to their products - yes, the same kind of labels required on packaged food and drink items. For alcohol, however, the ruling is voluntary - companies can select when and on which products they want to highlight serving information, and for which products it is in their best interest to leave them off. Thus, it's a win-win for manufacturers: they gain a marketing tool; inch potentially harmful products ever closer to being treated as nonalcoholic beverages; and spin the labels as a win for public health. 

Not surprisingly, the alcohol industry - particularly distillers - erupted in applause at the TTB's announcement. Diageo issued a press release (at nearly the same time as the TTB) that cooed about the"victory for public health and American consumers." The distilled spirits council (DISCUS) issued a similarly obnoxious statement, in which they "applaud the TTB" for "one of the most significant TTB labeling initiatives for distilled spirits, beer and wine in decades." 

Let's get real here: Industry support of alcohol serving facts labels is not actually about reducing alcohol-related harm and improving public health. Distilled spirits producers are excited because they have gained another tool in their arsenal, to be deployed selectively when it serves their bottom line. On the marketing end of the table, alcohol companies have carved out product niches for the last several years among weight- and health-conscious drinkers, as our report Questionable Claims from the Alcohol Industry: From Protein Vodka to Weight Loss Beer illuminates. Products such as SkinnyGirl that are marketed as "low calorie" or "low carb" may choose to sport a serving facts label, while the products that are high in calories and sugar most likely will not. When viewed as simply another marketing tool, it's easy to see how such a ruling will likely serve to significantly increase positive perceptions about alcoholic beverages and their brands, thus leading to increased sales and consumption.

The TTB ruling on serving fact labels offers alcohol corporations the perfect combination of benefits: It is voluntary, so it can be used whenever and however the producer sees fit. It employs the same label format as the food and nonalcoholic beverage industry. Finally, it allows producers to call voluntary, self-promoting alcohol serving labels contributions to public health, which they most definitely are not.

Sorry guys; we're not buying it. Rather than using (and celebrating) this ruling as permission to use serving facts labels to market their products, all alcohol producers should be required to list all ingredients and provide factual information in a way that does not promote consumption. Alcohol is considered "no ordinary commodity" for a reason, and should be labeled as such.