Critics say it's time to regulate those alcohol ads

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Orson Welles's bulk almost fills the television screen. Propped behind a well-set dinner table, he radiates good taste. Raising a wine glass, he pauses, then delivers the tag line to the commercial.

''Paul Masson,'' he says, the words rumbling out like the opening strains of a symphony, ''will sell no wine before its time.''

These days TV viewers in the United States are seeing a lot more advertisements from winemakers. During the first nine months of 1982, wine advertising on television increased by 30 percent over the same period a year earlier.

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This increase is a symptom of alcohol industry advertising practices which are encouraging ''the inebriation of America,'' claims a Washington research group in a recent report. Brewers, vintners, and distillers hotly dispute these charges.

Still, the debate has produced a spate of attention for several alcohol industry regulation bills that have been pushed in Congress for years, with little success.

Manufacturers of alcoholic beverages now spend more than $1 billion a year on advertising, according to a just-released report by the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI).

Orson Welles's wine ads, which associate drinking with eating and emphasize the product's taste, are alcohol advertising ''as responsible as one could expect,'' says the report. But many alcohol ads, charges CSPI, are siren songs aimed at two susceptible groups - heavy drinkers, and the young.

Schlitz beer, for instance, runs TV commercials featuring the popular English rock band, The Who. A recent article in the Chicago Tribune points out that Pete Townshend, the group's lead guitarist, is a recovered alcoholic.

''We believe these things lead to the miseducation of youth, showing success and winning, as if the product can provide some of that,'' says George Hacker, coauthor of the CSPI study.

Of course, ads for other products use the same glamour-by-association techniques. ''The product is the difference in this case,'' says Mr. Hacker, citing a Congressional Office of Technology Assessment study which estimates alcohol abuse may cost the US economy upward of $120 billion annually.

Industry spokesmen reply that linking alcoholism to beer, wine, and liquor ads is like blaming auto ads for highway crashes.

''There's absolutely no evidence that beverage advertising contributes to alcohol problems,'' says Duncan Cameron, communications director for the Distilled Spirits Council of the US.

And charging that alcohol ads are intended to coerce the vulnerable into drinking more, says Cameron, ''is a grossly oversimplified view, a cheap shot.''

A study by Prof. Donald Strickland of Washington University in St. Louis, funded by the alcohol industry but published in an independent university journal, says most ads focus on the product and its qualities. The controversial ''life style'' themes, which imply drinking leads to romance, wealth, and general success, occur only about once every 37 ads, concludes the study.

The Treasury Department's Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms is currently the only federal agency charged specifically with overseeing alcohol advertising. BATF rules prohibit certain techniques: active athletes, for instance, aren't supposed to be used in alcohol ads.

For the most part, alcohol advertising is regulated by the industry itself. The US Brewers Association discourages ads that ''encourage overindulgence.'' The Distilled Spirits Council, representing hard liquor manufacturers, tells its members not to advertise on TV or radio.

Critics claim these guidelines are weak and vague. One - Rep. George E. Brown Jr. (D) of California - has long pressed for further federal curbs on alcohol marketing techniques.

Congressman Brown has introduced two alcohol industry regulation bills. One would end tax deductions for the business expense of advertising wine, beer, and liquor. The second would require hard liquor bottles to include on their labels a warning against drinking the product too fast, or using it before driving or during pregnancy.

''We're not out to do away with alcohol,'' says a Brown aide. ''We see it as public education.''

''I grew up in a family with a lot of Methodist ministers who objected to drinking,'' Representative Brown says. At one point, his father ran a saloon in Holtville, Calif. ''It was a traumatic experience for my whole family,'' Brown remembers.

His district also contains many Mormons and Seventh-Day Adventists, religious groups opposed to drinking.

Industry officials say Brown's bills are grizzled veterans that reappear every session of Congress, to little result.

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