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County commissioners approve alcohol warning signs

Drinkers in Hillsborough County will soon be getting a health warning served up with their beer or bourbon. County commissioners voted 6-0 Wednesday to pass an ordinance requiring bars, restaurants, stores and other places that sell alcohol to post signs warning patrons that alcohol can cause birth defects, addiction and intoxication.

The idea emerged from an alcohol education task force that the county appointed almost three years ago. Proponents said the signs will help high-risk groups, such as teen-agers and pregnant women, make informed decisions about drinking after learning about the risks.

But alcoholic beverage industry representatives opposed the signs, saying they are ineffective.

Only one person spoke against the ordinance at Wednesday's hearing: Robin Niewoehner, executive assistant to the president of Pepin Distributing Co., the area's wholesaler of Anheuser-Busch products.

"It (the ordinance) is not going to hurt us, but we already have warning labels on our beer cans and bottles," Niewoehner said.

"It's going to stigmatize the moderate drinker," Niewoehner said. "It's going to show the cry-wolf syndrome."

But Dr. Donald Kwalick, director of the state Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services' Hillsborough County Public Health Unit, said signs have been effective in other communities, including Jacksonville.

"If one mother could see one of those signs and maybe not drink during her pregnancy, it would be well worth it," said Commissioner Jan Platt.

The health department will distribute the signs and enforce their use, Kwalick said. The ordinance will become effective after it has been recorded by the secretary of state's office, which takes about a week.

The program will not cost the county any money, nor will business owners have to pay a fee for the signs.

The signs also tell patrons: "Reduce your risks. Do not drink during pregnancy. Do not drink before driving or operating machinery. Do not mix alcohol with other drugs, both prescription and non-prescription. It can be fatal."

Niewoehner said greater emphasis needed to be placed on a comprehensive education program, not simply on warning signs.

The education committee had earlier recommended that the county hire someone to coordinate alcohol education activities, Kwalick said, but commissioners decided against it because of budget constraints.