When Federal Regulation Goes Too Far

Government regulation is the price we pay for living in a civilized society.  But when ill-advised government regulations threaten to limit the selection of craft beers available to the brew lovers among us, it’s time for the feds to dial back and understand their proper role.

In this case, the government actor is the Food and Drug Administration.  It’s the entity that makes sure that Americans don’t consume diseased foods or drugs that have harmful side effects.  No one disputes the need for such regulations, of course.  But the FDA has also promulgated a regulation that would require restaurant chains to offer full nutritional information for all of the beers they have on tap.  In order to comply with the regulations, which go into effect next year, brewers will need to perform expensive tests that allow them to specify the number of calories in their beer, the protein content, and so on.

usa-whitehouse-beerThe tests are a cost that can easily be borne by the major breweries that crank out millions of bottles of beer a year — but not so much for the small, local craft breweries that prepare tantalizing artisanal offerings in small batches that typically vary from season to season.  Think of that rich Winter Warmer you enjoyed when the cold snap hit last weekend, or the tart Summer Shandy you found so refreshing on a hot July afternoon.  The cost of the tests might cause the craft breweries to dial back on the number of their interesting offerings, which would be a shame for us, and them — and for the people employed in the craft beer industry, which has been booming in Ohio and elsewhere.

I’m all for labeling consumables where people might logically want to look at the label to determine calorie count, cholesterol levels, carbohydrates, sodium content, or whatever other ingredient might be an area of dietary focus.  And if brewers want to market their suds based on one of these areas — like with low-carb beer — then by all means let’s make sure those statements are accurate.

But craft beer is not one of those consumables where ingredient labels are useful.  No true beer-lover makes a decision on whether to order a particular craft beer based on its protein content or calorie level.  They just want to know what kind of beer it is (“hmm, that Belgian-style ale sounds good”) and its alcoholic content, which is typically disclosed already at any decent craft beer establishment.

Inspect the breweries?  Sure.  Make certain that they are clean and aren’t producing a product that might make people sick?  Absolutely!  But don’t implement pointless regulations that wouldn’t make a difference to craft beer consumers, and in the process cut down on our choices.

Doesn’t anyone in the FDA drink beer?  If not, perhaps they should consult with President Obama.  He seems to like a cold one now and then.

The Canadian Approach To Cigarette Labels

In America, warning labels on cigarette packs are a continuing source of controversy.  Most recently, the Food and Drug Administration had to retreat from requiring cigarette manufacturers to include graphic photos on cigarette packs after an appeals court found the mandatory labels violated the First Amendment.

The FDA photos were macabre, and included pictures of a corpse, diseased lungs, and a man with a tracheotomy puffing away with smoke coming from the hole in his throat. The FDA presumably thought the disgusting images would shock people into not buying cigarettes.  In our culture, however, would the labels actually discourage anyone — or would smokers, would are already used to social exclusion and often seem to smoke to cultivate a rebel image, just try to collect all nine images?  We’ll never know.

IMG_4387In Canada, where Russell (unfortunately) bought a pack of Camels yesterday, the approach is different.  His pack included a picture of a smoker who has emphysema and now must breathe with the help of an oxygen tank, but it also .  included a loose, wallet-sized card with a message (in both French and English, of course) from a smiling woman who successfully quit.  She says quitting was hard, but she was ashamed of being a smoker and felt guilty about her habit.  The first few days were tough, she concedes, but after she made it past the initial cravings she became more proud of herself and her will to quit got stronger.

I don’t know whether smoking labels make a difference.  In America, the number of smokers has fallen, but there remains a solid core of smokers and it is popular with younger people — even after the health issues are described in brutal detail.  I wonder if the Canadian approach, with the sad photo presented side-by-side with a positive story about quitting, is more likely to produce results.