updated 9/1/2009 2:13:59 PM ET 2009-09-01T18:13:59

Should two glasses of wine disqualify someone from getting behind the wheel? Italy's agricultural minister says no — and has ignited a storm of criticism.

Minister Luca Zaia told car magazine Quattroruote this week that attempts to completely ban drinking and driving were "criminalizing" Italy's national drink — wine — and damaging one of its most lucrative industries.

Critics wondered if the minister was putting economic interests ahead of safety.

"We have to stop considering drunk someone who drinks two glasses," Zaia said. "There is an ongoing criminalization that is killing one of the most important 'made in Italy' sectors."

Zaia said authorities should instead focus on road accidents caused by those who take tranquilizers and other drugs that can cause drivers to fall asleep.

Italian law allows a maximum of 0.5 grams of alcohol per liter in the blood of drivers. Two glasses of wine can put a person above that limit, depending on one's weight and other factors like food.

Parliament debating total ban
Parliament is debating a total ban on drinking for drivers who have had their license for less than three years. There have been strong calls within the conservative government to extend the new measure to all.

Zaia himself was quoted last year as saying there should be a total ban on drinking and driving.

But in the interview with Quattroruote, Zaia said the rules should not be changed because "at the current level, you are sober and perfectly capable of driving."

Health officials and relatives of accident victims condemned Zaia's comments.

"(Zaia's position) has little to do with scientific evidence and more to do with the economic interests of the wine industry," Emanuele Scafato, head of the alcohol observatory at the National Health Institute, told RAI state TV on Tuesday.

"A state of intoxication can be reached also by consuming a small amount of alcohol," Scafato said. "There are no safe levels of alcohol consumption when driving."

In a statement, the Agriculture Ministry confirmed Zaia's comments and said encouraging Italy's traditional wine consumption was the best way to stop binge drinking and other habits that experts blame for a rise in alcoholism in recent years, especially among youths.

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