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Unlike cigarettes, alcoholic drinks do not carry warning labels. But there is a growing feeling among health officials, and an awareness in Congress, that such labels are needed. It's about time.

One of the major reasons for requiring the labels would be to help protect pregnant women. Every year, some 15,000 babies are born with serious birth defects, including mental retardation, because their mothers drank excessively during pregnancy.Another target of labels would be teenagers. An estimated 30 percent of all adolescents experience negative consequences from alcohol use, including poor school performance, trouble with parents, and trouble with the law. Alcohol-related traffic deaths are the number one killer of those between the ages of 16 and 24.

Bills introduced in Congress would require various labels to be rotated on alcoholic beverage containers. Hearings are scheduled in the Senate Aug. 10 on the issue. Two of the suggested labels are:

"WARNING: The Surgeon General has determined that the consumption of this product, which contains alcohol, during pregnancy can cause mental retardation and other birth defects."

"WARNING: Drinking this product, which contains alcohol, impairs your ability to drive a car or operate machinery."

Such warnings apparently would not be mandated for television ads, but they ought to be. It has been reported that children see more than 100,000 beer commercials on TV before they are legally old enough to drink and drive.

Just as health warning labels on tobacco products and advertising have helped curb smoking, they also could help curb the health problems associated with liquor. A recently-completed Public Health Service study concluded that labels can be effective in increasing consumer knowledge, and can have an impact on consumer behavior.

There are many reasons to try warning labels and no good arguments against them. Congress should pass such a law.