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The label game

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Why labels don’t always tell what you want to know.

By Joe Stange

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.

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.

Strength Wars

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.

New Rules?

The federal government is considering whether to change the rules. In 2007, the Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) proposed rules that would require all beer labels to specify ABV and other nutritional information.

The Brewers Association, which represents craft brewers, was among those who opposed the rules as written. They would have required breweries to stick an additional label on the back of their bottles. “It would force companies to buy new equipment,” said association director Paul Gatza. “If you’re talking about 250-barrel breweries, and all of a sudden they need a back labeler, that could be the difference between profitable and not profitable.”

However, Gatza said the association does not necessarily oppose requirements to list alcohol content—as long as it can be included in the linear “fine print” that already appears on most labels.

For now, the TTB sits on the proposed rules. Spokesman Tom Hogue has said that the agency is still working on them, and that the issue is a complicated one with no quick solutions.

In the meantime, drinkers are left with a regulatory hodgepodge that might or might not require that handy little piece of information on their beers—the legacy of a time when our elected leaders thought it would be safer if we were kept in the dark about such things.

READ MORE: Deceptive Drinking

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