Tobacco companies and gun manufacturers are on the defensive about the damage their products do to the public. But what about the third product that the

Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms

regulates?

The bureau recently approved the placement of a carefully worded sticker implying the upsides of moderate drinking of wine alongside the required warning that the product "may cause health problems."

And now some of the companies that make or market liquor -- they include

Diageo

(DEO) - Get Report

, the British maker of Gordon's Gin, J&B Scotch and Guinness, and

Seagram

(VO) - Get Report

, which markets Absolut Vodka and Chivas Regal Scotch -- are considering seeking similar approval from the bureau.

In response to the wine makers' label campaign,

Strom Thurmond

, the 96-year-old Republican Senator from South Carolina, has introduced a series of bills that not only would bar such positive statements about the value of alcohol from the label but also would increase the federal excise tax on wine to as much as 300%. More importantly, Thurmond wants to switch jurisdiction over alcohol to the

Food and Drug Administration

from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms -- thereby treating alcohol like any other drug.

Thurmond has a specific reason to hate alcohol. A few years ago, his daughter was killed by a drunk driver.

But many Americans are ambivalent about alcohol: Is it a gift of the gods or a guarantee for trouble? Or, is its consumption just part of being human? The history of alcohol indicates that society has wrestled regularly with the issue, alternating between affectionate consumption, abuse and regulation.

Wine and beer originated 6,000 years ago, in the Near East. Distilled spirits appeared later in China. Alcohol's complications were recognized early on. Ancient Egypt and Sumeria had laws restricting the manufacture and sale of alcohol, and, in 1770 B.C., the Babylonian Code of Hammurabi regulated the places where alcohol could be sold and consumed.

Alcohol has been part of the American experience since colonial times. Advertisements in newspapers of the period offered for sale "Madeira and St. Michael's Wine, by the pipe, hogshead or quarter cask, Jamaica spirits, and Newark cider in barrels." Inns dispensed Antigua rum, English beer, French brandy, punch, toddies and metheglin, a popular mix of fermented honey, hot water and sugar. A majority of men were tavern-goers and hard cider was a common drink at meals for men, women and children.

"Dramming" -- for example, having a big glass of cider in the late morning and again in the afternoon -- was part of a colonial workman's ordinary day. At the time of the American Revolution, the average colonist drank 3.5 gallons of the equivalent 200 proof alcohol a year, according to

American Heritage

. By 1820, that had risen to 4 gallons per capita.

In the 1820's, however, the Temperance Movement emerged, first in the Northeast and then all over the nation. It was a concerted effort, spearheaded by preachers, to stamp out the perceived evils of alcohol. Some newspapers joined the battle, applauding the virtues of temperance and circulating examples of the effects of Demon Rum, like the story of the prison chaplain, a veteran of 120 executions, who claimed that "every one of

the condemned men declared that intemperance was the cause of his melancholy fate."

Alcohol's opponents enjoyed great success. By 1840, the average rate of consumption of alcohol had fallen to 1 1/2 gallons from 4 gallons per person. A number of states passed laws permitting localities to decide whether to go dry or not.

However, while people born in America were drinking less, Irish and German immigrants were bringing their thirsts with them to the New World, ushering in the era of the saloon. Across America, men drank their beer and other spirits and nibbled the free lunch on the bar. Not heeded were calls from members of the Anti Saloon League, who were outside the bars, singing dirges like the "Drunkard's Doom" and "Oh, Mr. Bartender, has my father been here?" By 1910, the average consumption of alcohol increased to 2.6 gallons per person for the year.

But, the foes of liquor, like the Women's Christian Temperance Union, had not given up the fight. By 1916, 23 states had some form of statewide or local restrictions on the sale of alcohol. In January, 1919, the 18th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified, banning the manufacture, sale and transport of intoxicating liquors. A year later, the Volstead Act went into effect, enforcing the amendment. Thurmond was a teenager at the time.

Prohibition had come to the United States and would remain for 13 years. There were many efforts to avoid the law, including speakeasies, smuggling, and bathtub gin. Surprisingly, despite widespread violations, Prohibition did in fact lessen drinking, not just during the time it was illegal, but even after its repeal in 1933. In 1934, consumption was at less than a gallon for each individual for the year. It crept higher, to 1.2 gallons in 1935 and to an average of 1.54 gallons a year up until World War II began.

Since Prohibition's repeal, restrictions on the use of alcohol in the U.S. generally have been self imposed, except with respect to driving under its influence. At least until the introduction of Thurmond's proposed legislation, the recognition that alcoholism is a disease had shifted attention from regulating the manufacturers and sellers of liquor to the treatment of the drinkers and the prevention of the disease in others.

Has it worked? It's hard to say. Liquor sales have been sliding for two decades, and some large liquor marketers recently have begun to ignore a self-imposed ban on TV and radio advertising.

Has our society matured to be able to balance the bad with the good in alcohol? Should drinking, even if it has beneficial effects, be encouraged? Do we need the FDA regulating the liquor, wine and beer industries?

Because history has clearly shown that alcohol consumption can create and worsen social problems -- and because of the ravages of alcoholism -- it is healthy that Congress will debate these issues, no matter how many times some of them have been debated before.

Richard B. Marrin is a senior partner in the Wall Street law firm of Ford Marrin Esposito Witmeyer & Gleser. A litigator for almost 30 years, he has been involved in numerous large securities actions, from Equity Funding and Franklin National in the 1970s to the bank failures and write-offs in Texas and California of the 1980s. More recently, his work has involved the calamities afflicting Pacific Rim investors. Marrin is also the author of several books on American history of the 18th and 19th centuries.