Sobering Up the Alcohol Sales Pitch

SLOWLY, Americans are becoming more savvy about the destructive effects of alcohol. Colleges are restricting alcohol use in fraternity ``rushes.'' Sales of hard liquor and wine have dropped since 1985; beer sales flattened off last year. Public discourse on alcohol is also changing for the better. It's becoming more acceptable to challenge the popularity of drinking. Critics attack the entrenched interests and the tactics of the liquor industry.

The Rev. Calvin O. Butts of the Abyssinian Baptist Church of Harlem runs a campaign of civil disobedience aimed at the industry, whitewashing billboards advertising liquor and cigarettes in his community. Liquor billboards are more numerous in Harlem than anywhere else in New York City. The ads promote a destructive message in a community already struggling with poverty and addiction, Mr. Butts says. Similar campaigns have begun in Chicago, Detriot, and Dallas - causing one liquor company to say it would no longer advertise Scotch and cognac in low-income neighborhoods.

Legislation designed to alter alcoholic beverage advertising now has been introduced in Congress. This bill, or at least some form of it, ought to become law.

Sponsored by Sen. Albert Gore (D) of Tennessee and Rep. Joseph Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts, the legislation would require lengthy health warnings to accompany all alcohol ads. What's more, warnings would have to be read aloud on TV. That's a powerful countermessage to the phony glamorizing of drink. Warnings must touch one of five areas: drinking and driving, drinking while pregnant, the dangers of mixing alcohol with drugs, underage drinking, and the addictive nature of alcohol.

Because of the time taken to read a message, 15 to 30 second TV alcoholic beverage ads would probably disappear. That's fine.

Predictably, the liquor and advertising industries are outraged. They claim to be targeted unfairly. Perhaps they should reexamine recent statistics: More than 100,000 people died last year from alcohol-related causes - more than heroin or cocaine combined. More than half of the 31,000 people comitting suicide in 1988 were drunk. More than half the 22,000 murders in '88 involved alcohol. And this says nothing of the family violence, disharmony, and heartbreak that result from intoxication.

Given such problems, a consciousness-raising label on these products is a good idea - though not a panacea.

Nor should threats made by liquor companies to cancel their voluntary public service ads deter lawmakers. Some of these ads have been helpful. But they were motivated more by growing public activism against alcohol (mothers and students against drunk driving, for example) than by virtue. Liquor companies talking piously about sobriety is a little like the fox lecturing the chickens on personal safety.

Well-produced warnings - particularly verbal ones - can effectively make the same point.

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