Back in June, Alcohol Justice issued a report entitled “Questionable Health Claims by Alcohol Companies.” I was pretty excited to read this report, because we study such matters closely. Every few weeks I get an exuberant report of a big health claim, on another alcohol beverage product — but it almost always turns out to be a false alarm.
Also, I wanted to give AJ (formerly known as The Marin Institute) a fair chance to persuade me that a lot of companies do in fact go over “the line.” Even though I freely admit that we derive most of our revenue from alcohol beverage companies, I like to think we are fair and open-minded enough to agree with a strong and well-made point.
The report tends to say a large number of alcohol beverage companies are running roughshod over consumers, with phony health claims, and with the rules either insufficient or largely ignored. AJ suggests the rules are “constantly being violated.”
These advertising practices are legally tenuous, morally unsound, and potentially dangerous. … Using health messages to sell products that can cause such widespread harm is not only unethical, it’s illegal, and yet the regulatory system has failed miserably to protect the American public. … This report examines this disturbing trend to promote alcohol as a health and fitness product…
I was eager to see the evidence at long last. I have seen many a company try and fail, to find a way to meekly suggest that their product might have some positive attributes beyond taste. I recall when a few wine labels tried but failed to suggest, after much litigation, that it might not be a bad idea to check with your doctor about the health effects of wine. Mind you, there was no reference to health benefits. I was eager to see the examples of wine labels promoting heart health; I was eager to see the various digestif labels promoting longevity and improved digestive function; I was eager to see the various anti-oxidant labels that had so stubbornly evaded my past inquisitions.
Instead, AJ trotted out Lotus “Vitamin Infused” Vodka. It sounds dramatic, with all the talk of vitamins and vodka.
[T]he first fortified – or “enhanced” – vodka was introduced in 2007. Lotus White is infused with vitamins B3, B6, B9, and B12. According to the company’s CEO, the vitamins are meant to curb or eradicate hangovers. In an interview, he said the vodka “could actually be good for you.” … Despite the dubious nature of [the] health claims, the marketing techniques seem to be working. Lotus vodka’s sales increased 50 percent in 2009…
AJ fails to note that it never mentioned vitamins on the label, and so far as I know, it hasn’t been sold in many years. It never sold more than a few thousand bottles per year, worldwide. The fading Lotus website shows a total of five web retailers; none of them carry this anymore or have it in stock.
If this is the best AJ can do, with thousands of new alcohol beverage products every year, and over 130,000 label approvals per year, it is tough to imagine a more ringing endorsement for the status quo.
AJ next rails against the pernicious use of the term “natural” on various alcohol beverages.
In 2008, three of the five top-selling vodka companies in the U.S. had ad campaigns with fruit and positioned their products as fresh or all natural: Absolut (2nd), Skyy (4th), and Stoli (5th). At least one other spirit, Finlandia vodka, also took advantage of the all-natural designation. … Skyy’s website, however, confirms that no actual fruit is used in the process. Because [TTB] has not defined the words “infusion” or “all-natural,” the company uses them freely.
I am having trouble comprehending whether AJ would be more happy if the same products were loaded up with artificial flavors instead. As Herman Cain might say, AJ is “incorrect” in saying TTB does not define terms like natural and all-natural. TTB has rigorous standards for terms such as these. TTB tests all flavors in all alcohol beverages — whether made within or without the US — to verify that they are natural. It is far from a rubber stamp regime. TTB maintains a laboratory staffed with more than a few specialized beverage and non-beverage chemists, to verify the assertions of the many specialized and sophisticated flavor companies that seek flavor approvals. In many instances, far from being a marketing gimmick, the law requires the use of natural flavors only (prime examples would be liqueurs and the flavored vodkas mentioned by AJ). To avoid the use of natural flavors in products like the flavored vodkas above would be in direct and flagrant conflict with federal laws in place since about the 1930s. This being the case, does AJ really think it’s a good idea to suppress this information? And on what grounds? AJ also suggests that the term “organic” should not be used on products that meet the rigorous standards to qualify as organic. AJ is long on casting aspersions and short on constructive suggestions in saying “marketers should not use the term ‘organic’ to imply an alcoholic beverage is healthful. Additional oversight by federal regulators is needed here, as well.”
See Part 2 of 2 in about a week