The Benefits of Red Wine and the Politics of Science

November 27th, 2006

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

Saturday’s New York Times had an interesting article (registration required) about scientific stuides finding possible health benefits of red wine, and the political constraints on the wine industry to advertise those benefits. Here is an excerpt from the article:

The wine industry certainly has welcomed the recent disclosures that a compound in red wine improves the health and endurance of laboratory mice. So why isn’t the industry crowing about it?

Because it can’t. The industry has long been handcuffed by state and federal laws that discourage promoting the benefits of wine, with some of those restrictions dating back to the repeal of Prohibition in 1933.

“Yes, we’d all like to make hay of this, and we’ll do what we can, but we are very constrained,” said Michael Mondavi, founder and president of Folio Fine Wine Partners, a producer and importer of wines here.

As an industry that is closely regulated by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, Mr. Mondavi said, “it is blatantly against the law for any alcoholic beverage producers to make any health claim regardless of the facts or the accuracy.”

“Until that regulation is changed or modified in some way so that we can talk about the positive health aspects that are proven,” said Mr. Mondavi, the older son of famed winemaker Robert Mondavi, “we have to sit on our hands and wait for others to pick up the story.”

Government regulation of alcohol advertising has a long history steeped in American cultural attitudes about drinking. In this regard this issue shares some obvious similarities with, say, medical marijuana or even differences in male-female aptitude (e.g., as raised by Harvard’s Larry Summers not long ago). In other words, political issues involving science are immersed in rich stew of societal values and preferences. It is only when these values are strongly contested in society that issues of science in political debate actually come to the fore — creating conditions for the pathological politicization of science. We tend to see these issues more starkly when political conflict exists and overlook them when conflict does not. Consisder the brouhaha over federal funding of stem research, yet there isn’t similar controversy on federal funding for human cloning research.

When values are widely shared, aspects of science in politics that raise hackles in other contexts go overlooked or are treated as amusing side notes, such as in the NYT article on the potential benefits of red wine. That all issues of science in politics are not treated equally should make the obvious inescapable – when science and politics meet, the values context always matters. There is no such thing as decisions driven by science. Decisions are always driven by values. How, if, and when we wish to consider science in making those decisions is of course where much of the action lies. But we should not pretend that science makes decisions. People make decisions.

3 Responses to “The Benefits of Red Wine and the Politics of Science”

  1. David Bruggeman Says:

    While this is a great point, there is a problem with the research (and the industry’s approach to it), that is troublesome.

    From the article:
    “Of course, in contrast to Ms. Guiliano and Mr. Safer, who were talking about people drinking a glass or two a day, the latest research relies on data concerning mice given a drug at dosages equivalent to drinking hundreds of glasses of wine. But industry analysts say that distinction will probably not register with most consumers, who will primarily hear a reinforcement of the now familiar message that red wine is good for one’s health.”

    Given the need to self-pickle to obtain the benefits of this compound, and the industry’s willingness to downplay that fact, I think the restrictions on advertising are warranted.

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  3. Steve Hemphill Says:

    David -

    Your statement does not follow. Just because the mice benefitted from a larger amount does not mean there is *no* benefit from a smaller dose – particularly considering the time frames involved. I’m not saying your final statement is wrong, I’m just saying your logic is faulty.

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  5. David Bruggeman Says:

    Any reports I’ve read about the research are silent on whether or not humans may benefit from different doses of the compound than mice. In fact, they make the same extrapolation that I did – humans would benefit from the same proportion of intake as the mice. Presumably this bears out for most medical research based on mice models, otherwise they wouldn’t be as favored a research model as they are.