Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Get Ready For Cancer Warnings on Wine Labels

Note: There are several links to articles embedded in the post following that give more context.

Deep within the State of the Industry Report that was released in January, I discussed the Cumulative Negative Health Message that is being spread by neo-prohibitionists. That message is resonating with consumers and wine sales are being impacted, particularly among young health-conscious consumers.

In fact, the total volume growth of wine sold through distributors in the US has turned negative in both restaurants and grocery/drug store sales in the 12-month period ending in June of this year. When was the last time that happened?

More recently, in this blog, I wrote an article on one particular piece of "research" that was funded by anti-alcohol groups. The stated goal of the junk science was to "communicate possible cancer risks that exploit successful historical messaging on smoking."  Said plainly, the goal of the research was to use the known link between cancer and cigarettes and cross-pollinate that same cancer fear to wine consumption.

The volume of the narrative that is attempting to say wine consumption is "just like smoking" is growing and discussions have started regarding changing the warning labels on the back of wine.

I don't know what new warning labels will say, but they won't tell the story that moderate consumption is healthy. More likely, it will include a warning with the word cancer - no matter how weak the link is between cancer and moderate wine consumption. The wording in the warning label nearby is what is currently being suggested by one group.

My own view on wine consumption is obviously biased, but it is influenced by the consistent science that demonstrates wine consumption in moderation produces better health outcomes compared to those who abstain from consuming any alcohol. I believe wine is part of many cultures and enhances the enjoyment of food, family gatherings and life in general. I like food and wine.

Could there be a marginal increase in cancer of some type with wine consumption? Maybe, but overall health outcomes are enhanced when wine is consumed in moderation. Isn't that the important news?

What will happen to wine consumption if this narrative continues and gains strength? IWSR wrote a piece suggesting the link being drawn between cigarettes and alcohol will drive new legislation.

What's Your Opinion?

  • Is the wine industry doing anything to combat this attack?
  • Do you believe wine causes cancer like cigarettes?
  • What percentage of current wine consumers today will agree that wine in moderation is good for you?
Please join this site on the top right-hand side of the page, and offer your thoughts below. I respond to everyone.

Please share this post on your favorite social media platform. We need to heighten the discussion of this topic.


  1. It's OK... warnings on wine... people will switch to "Hard Seltzer," aka. "Malt Liquor"... because drinking boat loads of sugar is far better for you than a glass of wine. Pseudoscience is the bane of our society... any quack with an audience, or some amount of creativity to capture an audience, can come up with this crap.

    1. Cameron - Thanks for logging in and commenting. I totally agree that today, its just about the headlines. Thats as far as people get reading an article today.

      I'm hoping instead of complaining, the US wine industry starts to organize and 1) combat crap science, 2) promote the fact that moderate wine consumption is HEALTHY for you. That's the message that we've lost and it's killing sales.

  2. I was executive director of the Washington Wine Institute and, subsequently, Wine America, from 1985 through 1996. During that period there were lots of issues and campaigns but the three major items were legislative initiatives to increase options for direct shipping; constantly protecting against tax increases; and, educating various entities and the public about healthful benefits of moderate wine consumption as a bulwark against neo-prohibition initiatives. The work of the Wine Institute, led by John DeLuca and managed by Patricia Schneider and later Elizabeth (sorry I can't remember her last name), was very high quality, supporting independent research and thoroughly disseminating positive information. I agree with you that this type of campaign needs to be revived to protect against another backlash, and quickly.

    1. Simon - Thanks for the post. And thanks for all the work you did prior that supported the wine industry.

      We have taken our eye off the ball. Allowing the messaging that was "moderate consumption of wine is GOOD for you," to now become "consumption of wine is like smoking cigarettes" is a lack of vision on our collective part.

      We do need to address this immediately. If an organization is a lobbying organization within the wine business - they should be funding a technical position or group to push back on this barrage of absurd science. If an organization is a marketing organization within the wine business, they should be promoting wine as a HEALTHY beverage and use the available science that supports that.

  3. I think the issue is that there are some mass wine producers that are pumping all kinds of chemicals into wine. I do think that consumers ought to know which wines have these types of additives and which ones don't. I think this is really the issue at hand that needs to be addressed. Sure, if there are a bunch of chemicals in the wine labels you drink, you could be exposing yourself to an increased risk of cancer. I think the discussion needs to be at this level - not a blanket statement that all wine could lead to cancer.

    1. Anon 1:42 - thank you for posting. I have a mixed view of your perspective. I agree that mass production wineries often include additives in their wine. But I don't think that is what is being studied in terms of cancer links, so I can't say that's an issue.

      The cancer studies are over multiple years/decades and ask: 1) Do you drink wine? 2) How much and how often? 3) What kind of cancer did you contract? The solution is compared to a control group and voila, there is a higher occurrence of cancer in the non-control group that consumes wine, versus the group that doesn't. The studies never get to ask "Do you only drink the good stuff?"

      More often than not, the cancer linkage is weak and small as a percentage of the sample, so it's virtually impossible to factor out other things that could cause a variance from the control group - like how many in the control group are vitamins or "do you drink wine from lead crystal?" More important, the focus is on a small set of cancers that can't be defined as truly caused from wine consumption, and the studies ignore the positive health results in cardiovascular and stroke from other studies. Those results exceed the negative causal studies. (Sorry - that got long)

      The part I agree is labeling. I think we have to be more transparent in what we put in wine. For many, its grapes, yeast, and sulfites. For some it's egg whites and sturgeon bladders. People with egg alergies want to know if egg whites are in their wine, and vegans want to know if there is any form of meat. Why can't we do as most beverage producers are, and say it's gluten free, has 125 calories per serving, contains no sugars, has no egg whites used in fining, etc. For a health conscious consumer - that is critical in their purchase decision.

  4. Wine does not cause cancer. If it did cancer would be far more prevalent. But what has changed is that glyphosate, an ingredient originating in Monsanto roundup weed-killer, is being found in most wine and beer these days. And studies *have* shown conclusively that there is a link between glyphosate and cancer. I believe that the wine, spirits and beer industries should be doing is spending what money it takes to raise the grains and grapes without using pesticides (at least, not ones with glyphosate), and have a campaign to reassure customers that their particular brand does not contain glyphosate. This then stops the wine = cancer narrative and shifts it to "wines/beers with glyphosate" cause cancer. Then brands that show on their labels "no glyphosate" will sell better than those that don't.

    1. Thanks for the thoughts Craig. Nobody can say that wine causes cancer yet - at least they can't say it with science behind them but some say it anyway.

      Roundup is a separate issue. Most of my clients stopped using that years ago, though I recognize the use is still common in some vineyards and regions.

      I'm not certain today if it's helpful to brand a food product glyphosate free and call attention to the issue, that the product might actually contain that. Most consumers don't think of wine and Roundup so there is some downside to taking that path today. If the narrative becomes something the consumer becomes conscious of, then that is a path wineries will have to consider.

      I agree with you that it's a chemical - along with all pesticides, best left out of the wine business at this stage.

  5. Rob, thanks for the article. You are right. Industry needs to "wake up and smell the coffee" on the dangers that are ahead in consumer perception. There was a very interesting session at this year's international wine law conference in Lausanne that dealt exactly with this ( Great presentations (and warnings). Bennet Caplan of FIVS set out a very stark future if industry does not get organized to address this.

    1. Mark, Thanks for the comments. I was unaware of the topic discussion in Lausanne. Thanks for the link. I will take a look.

      I'm also glad that the legal profession is involved. The rogue purchased science that is out there today is something that might require the legal profession to enter in order to get at truth. As we all know, not everything you read in the paper is true. Not all conclusions you see presented in science are true either. But negative PR campaigns are sometimes about ringing the bell and knowing it can't be un-rung.

  6. Hi Rob. I'm going to use a couple of parallels from this week that make this issue a possible time bomb. #1: JUUL - with very little information this product was mass distributed in the marketplace as a 'healthy' alternative to cigarettes. Will it turn out that some folks in the industry have been using the highly toxic Vitamin E compound to help 'ignite' the flame. Probably so. Will they look for a substitute or consider a warning or change how it's marketed so that the benefits of quitting smoking can still be obtained. Probably not. Trump doesn't like it and he's all over it (for the moment). #2 - carcinogens in over the counter prescription drugs like Zantac. This is a bigger time bomb to me than wine. Suppliers to mass marketers of these drugs like Walgreens, etc. apparently have no oversight to test that these drugs don't contain harmful cancer causing elements. But here's where the hysteria on both of these really get me going. Our environment is slowly killing us. So what did our government do this week? Get rid of clean water protections. Go figure. So back to the wine. I compare the 'mass manuacturing' of JUUL and the Zantac as the culprits in both these situations. No quality control. No thought for the consumer. Why not encourage and support sustainable and organic practices in our farming vs putting a skeleton on the bottle?

    1. That's a lot to say Wine Woman. I'll tackle the last sentence. Sonoma you probably read, is now at 100% of their goal of being certified sustainable. That's great and we shouldn't be using pesticides or Roundup at this stage anyway. There is no real need. The larger question is how that positive outcome in Sonoma impacts demand. Today, I don't see that making a difference.

      I'm not picking on Sonoma, to the contrary- that's demonstrating industry leadership and we all need to do what we can to improve the quality of our food supply. I'm pointing out that in today's world, the consumer is being convinced by crap science that wine IS poison, despite the fact science consistently documents wine as being healthy in moderation.

      So where should we put our focus? How do we get the consumer to see wine as being healthy again, as was the narrative in the 90's.