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Washington coalition mounts offensive to limit ads for alcohol

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One sponsor is Congressman Don Edwards (D) of California, who sent a letter to beer manufacturers asking them to ''voluntarily take their beer commercials off television as a way to stop the national tragedy of alcohol abuse among American teen-agers.''

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The coalition has claimed two separate victories in keeping hard-liquor ads off the airwaves. Its organized letter-writing campaigns, according to coalition leaders, pressured the M. S. Walker Company, producers of Cossack Vodka, and Hawkeye Distillers, maker of M*A*S*H Vodka, to take their ads off radio. In the case of Hawkeye Distillers, which bought the rights to use the name of the popular television show, six members of the cast of ''M*A*S*H,'' after being contacted by the coalition, spoke out publicly against the ads.

Paul Shuman, marketing director of M. S. Walker's Somerville, Mass., headquarters, acknowledged receiving letters sent by CSPI and the group Mothers Against Drunk Drivers (MADD) to ban Cossack Vodka radio ads. Shuman responds, however, ''I feel strongly that the letters are an infringement on our right of advertising.'' He contends they played no part in his decision to keep the product off the air.

While the anti-advertising forces are trying to drum up broader support for their position, the alcoholic beverage manufacturers are not sitting idly by. Bill Bowdren, chief administrator of the Miller Brewing Company's New England regional office, said it has its own lobbyists working on the county, state, and national levels to influence legislation helpful to the industry.

Mr. Bowdren contends that tighter regulations on advertising would inhibit the business's right to free trade, which would lower sales and jeopardize employment. He contends that the industry is doing a good job in self-monitoring its advertising and in developing public-service ads advising people to use its product wisely and in moderation.

George Hacker of CSPI disagrees. He counters that the voluntary guidelines set up by the industry's own US Brewers Association (USBA) to promote responsible advertising have been violated repeatedly when manufacturers link beer with adventurous sports activities in ads. Hacker also asserts that the USBA guidelines are essentially meaningless, on grounds they are unenforceable, and suggests that the few public-service ads the industry has produced are of poor quality - usually done in black and white - and broadcast very late at night.

Although they acknowledge the threat from the anti-advertising forces to be real, the industry has not been able to mount an allied effort to oppose it. With the Miller and G.Heileman Brewing Company's withdrawal from the USBA over policy disputes, industry leaders are finding it difficult to fight back as one group.

The coalition itself also has to deal with problems of its own. Member organizations, for the most part, face financial and staffing restraints that make it difficult for them to spend extensive amounts of time and resources on the ban-on-advertising project.

Prospects for favorable FTC action on the coalition's petition seem slim for the short term. In a letter to US Rep. James J. Florio (D) of New Jersey, who chairs the House Subcommittee on Commerce, Transportation, and Tourism, which oversees the FTC, James Miller, FTC chairman, writes that ''No major investigation is warranted'' into the advertising practices of the alcohol industry.

Mr. Florio says that ''the antiregulatory and pro-business bias of the FTC goes without saying. With the three Reagan appointees which make up a majority on the FTC, that agency is ultimately redefining the law to remove and cushion the impact of regulations on business.''

He charges that the FTC has no intention of enforcing the unfairness-in-advertising mandate in its charter.

No congressional action on this issue has been proposed.