Drinking in the Dark

Bellion Vodka has one strange website. Bellion claims to be “the next step in the evolution of spirits” and “a smarter way to drink.” Its secret is NTX—“a technology developed to evolve spirits by making them functional and smarter.”

But if you’re hoping for more information, forget about it. There’s a warning that NTX will “not prevent alcohol intoxication, will not ameliorate the overall harmful effects that occur from drinking in excess, and will not render alcohol safe for those who suffer from alcoholism, liver disease, diabetes, or any other disease for which alcohol is contraindicated.” And there’s the factoid that NTX is trademarked by a company called Chigurupati Technologies.

Now websites announcing new breakthroughs are sometimes deliberately designed with an air of mystery, keeping the details secret in order to raise public interest. But in this case the air of mystery comes not from some marketing guru, but from federal regulation. Google “Chigurupati Technologies” and you’ll be led to some additional information on how NTX somehow makes “drinking smarter,” but nothing that explains just what’s going on. And then you find this statement: “Federal regulations prohibit us from making any health related statements regarding NTX.”

And therein lies a still unfolding tale involving the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB), the federal agency that regulates alcoholic beverages. But first, a little background.

TTB was created by Congress in 2003, taking over many of the functions of its predecessor, ATF (the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms). One of those functions is regulating the labelling and marketing of alcoholic beverages. ATF used this power to effectively squelch any attempt by winemakers, beer brewers, and spirits distillers to make any mention of their products’ health benefits. For example, beginning in the 1970s, a body of research developed demonstrating that moderate consumption could reduce the risk of heart attacks. In 1993, ATF itself acknowledged that the evidence supported a link between moderate drinking and reduced cardiac risk, and it promised to undertake a rulemaking aimed at defining what sorts of statements might be allowed on the benefits of alcoholic beverages. But in the decade that followed, ATF did nothing of the sort; its position was that any mention of health benefits had to be accompanied by so many qualifications that, as the agency succinctly put it, “it is extremely unlikely that such a balanced claim would fit on a normal alcoholic beverage label.”

About 20 years ago CEI challenged ATF’s policy in court on First Amendment grounds, but we failed; the agency’s power over the industry kept anyone from volunteering as the “willing speaker” that most free speech cases require. Since then, however, the evidence on the beneficial effects of moderate continues to grow.

TTB has replaced ATF, but the government’s position on alcohol advertising hasn’t changed much. And that brings us to the strange absence of information on the Bellion Vodka and Chigurupati websites. To find out just what this new innovation is, you need to go to the patent that Chigurupati received earlier this month. It describes a method for reducing the liver toxicity of alcoholic beverages by infusing them with NTX, which is a proprietary mix of several GRAS (Generally Recognized As Safe) substances that are widely used in foods, among them a licorice-root derivative and a sugar alcohol.

When Bellion Vodka first applied to TTB for approval of its “infused with NTX” label in 2014, the agency turned it down. Among TTB’s arguments was that the company was making a verboten health claim that failed to comply with the agency’s hallowed rigmarole regarding qualifiers and disclaimers—the stuff that ATF long ago characterized as not fitting on any beverage label known to man. TTB later withdrew its denial in the face of a strong appeal filed by Bellion, but Bellion itself is apparently not saying very much about how NTX actually works, not even in a new YouTube spot. Nor, for that matter, is Chigurupati. To find out about that, you need to go through the extensive studies referenced and summarized in the patent.

But at least the product is out there. And if information about it is hard to obtain, you can thank the feds.