In a capital run by champions of deregulation, at least one new and potentially significant form of Federal control soon may be seen. This is a warning label on alcoholic beverage containers, a proposal that has widespread bipartisan support, including that of key conservative Republicans. The Reagan administration has yet to make its position known. But supporters point out to White House critics that the cost of liquor producers (according to the producers themselves) would be less than a penny a bottle.
The warning label issue comes at a time of mounting public concern over the effects of alcoholic beverages. The surgeon general for the first time recently warned pregnant women to abstain from alcohol to protect their unborn children. Previously, government scientists had said that some drinking during pregnancy was not harmful.
In 1975, the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism reported the annual social cost of drinking to be at least $42 billion. Today observers put the figure at closer to $60 billion. This includes lost production, motor vehicle accidents and violent crime, and health and medical costs. The General Accounting Office has determined that "alcohol is the single largest factor in highway deaths," involving some 25,000 persons a year.
In the past five years, at least 12 states have raised their legal drinking age above 18 and other states are moving in the same direction.
"The sum total of all these concerns is growing," says William Plymat, executive director of the American Council on Alcohol Problems and chairman of the Iowa Commission on Substance Abuse.
Legislation proposed by Rep. George Brown Jr. (D) of California would mandate a label warning not only of health and safety risks but also of possible dependency or addiction. Such labels would be required on beverages containing more than 24 percent alcohol, and thus not apply to beer or wine.
Similar legislation was approved by the Senate last year, but expired in the House. This year, the Senate bill again is being sponsored by Sen. Strom Thurmond (R) of South Carolina, who chairs the Judiciary Committee. Its cosponsor is Sen. Orrin Hatch (R) of Utah, chairman of the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee.
Such legislation, says Congressman Brown, "is not designed to stop drinking, only to allow people to make an informed decision, much in the same way smokers do today."
There is some question as to how effective warning labels on cigarette packages have been. While the number of teen-agers smoking has increased in recent years, per capita consumption of cigarettes has dropped 8.4 percent since the surgeon general's report on smoking in 1964 and warning labels that followed. This reversed an upward trend, especially among adults.
A joint study by the Treasury and Health and Human Services Department recently concluded that warning labels would not solve the nation's alcohol problem. The Treasury Department under the Reagan administration has rescinded a regulation that would have required producers of alcoholic beverages to list their ingredients.
But supporters say a general warning label is an important step that would not be overly costly to business.
"A warning label requires a minimum of government intrusion into industry," says Senator Hatch, an influential conservative and Reagan supporter. "Most experts agree that in combination with other public awareness campaigns, the effect of such a label will be positive."