A US government agency has given wine and beer makers the all-clear to make claims about the health benefits of their products, as long as they are accompanied by warnings about health risks as well.

Treasury Department's Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau said any claims about health benefits made on labels or in advertising must be true and based on scientific research, and possible risks associated with moderate or heavy usage must also be disclosed.

There has been some pressure on the government to relax its rules in this area, which go back some 60 years, particularly in light of research highlighting the association of red wine consumption with reduced risk of heart disease.

"While the deleterious effects of alcohol lead many to strongly oppose allowing any statements that might encourage consumption, these concerns must be balanced against First Amendment protections of commercial free-speech," the Treasury Department said in a statement.

However, a lobbying group campaigning for a relaxation in the rules on First Amendment free speech grounds, The Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI), said that the caveats to the new ruling effectively meant the changes made little difference. "In our view, as far as the First Amendment goes, this package is no different," said Sam Kazman, general counsel for the CEI.

However, while the alcohol industry has been keen to stress the possible benefits of moderate consumption, if only to counteract all the negative information circulating about the risks, making precise claims about the possible health-giving properties of individual products or brands is viewed by some as a high-risk strategy from a PR point of view.