Government bureaucrats want to crack down on alcohol containers that don't look like traditional wine and liquor bottles.
The agency spearheading the effort — the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco & Firearms — is saying the right things about not stifling packaging innovation.
At the same time, ATF doesn't seem interested in consistently enforcing the rule across all packaging types. Despite the mumble-mouth explanation, we support the policy — provided it doesn't target plastics packaging unfairly.
What does a container of alcohol look like? Traditionally, that's been an easy question. Liquor and wine come in 750-milliliter clear or green glass bottles with fancy paper labels that boast an image of elegance.
But alcohol today isn't always traditional. You see a variety of sizes, colors and materials, as marketers look for ways to boost market share and brand awareness.
Increasingly, plastic has been part of the equation, although it's still a niche player. (Marketers say glass still has snob appeal.) According to ATF, some of the plastic packaging is designed to be attractive to children. Examples include products that resemble frozen flavored-ice products, gelatin products and nonalcoholic fruit sodas and drinks.
Government studies suggest look-alike packages are a problem. According to a Department of Health and Human Services report — ``Do They Know What They are Drinking?'' — two out of three teenagers cannot distinguish some alcohol-containing products from nonalcoholic ones, by their retail appearance.
Manufacturers of these products argue that they're not targeting children at all. Bright colors and new package designs appeal to young adults, too. And after all, liquor isn't supposed to be available to children. When kids get their hands on alcoholic drinks, that's a problem that goes far beyond package design.
Still, packagers and marketers need to take responsibility for their part of the underage-drinking problem. That means discouraging cheap, single-serve retail containers, for example.
ATF is seeking comment on a rule designed to stop the misleading packaging of alcohol products. The proposal specifically targets alcohol containers that can be mistaken for food or other packaging — unless the package is labeled clearly.
But, inexplicably, ATF's proposal says it ``is not concerned about containers such as aluminum cans or glass bottles that are well-established in the marketplace as both alcohol and nonalcohol beverage containers.''
In other words, it may be OK if some glass and metal alcohol packaging mimic food containers, but plastic cannot.
Although an ATF spokesman said the agency does not want to inhibit innovation in packaging, that's exactly the direction this proposal is taking.
Again, we don't quarrel with the intent of this labeling rule. But we suggest that ATF play fair, and judge other forms of packaging the same way it evaluates plastic.
Being blind to the type of packaging but attuned to the message the package is sending will have a greater impact on the problem ATF is trying to address.