Coalition asks FTC to prohibit liquor ads aimed at young people

The ad pictures a bulldog with a fierce gaze, a college cap, and a can of beer in his paw. Underneath him is printed the schedule for Georgetown University's ''Hoyas'' basketball team. ''After the Hoyas Hit the Hoops,'' reads the caption, ''Head for the Mountains. Busch Beer.''

The tagline could just as easily say ''After the Hoyas Hit the Hoops, It's Miller Time,'' or, ''This Bud's for the Hoyas.'' Youth-oriented advertisements are a staple marketing tool for breweries, appearing in college newspapers and student-union posters across the United States.

But if a new coalition of public groups has its way, these ads will disappear. Twenty-five organizations - including the United Methodist Church, the national Parent-Teacher Association, and Ralph Nader's Public Citizen group - this week petitioned the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) for tighter regulation of alcoholic beverage advertising, including the abolition of ads aimed at young people.

''Once treated as special and potentially dangerous products, (alcoholic beverages) are now sold right next to the milk and juice in many grocery stores, and advertised along with soap and mattresses on radio and television,'' complains Michael Jacobson of the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), the group which organized the coalition.

Brewers, vintners, and distillers now spend more than $1 billion a year on advertising, according to a CSPI report.

Wine ads that feature beverages being consumed with food, says CSPI Director Jacobson, are examples of responsible alcohol advertising. But much of the industry's ad budget, he says, is spent luring two susceptible segments of the population - the young, and heavy drinkers.

Breweries, along with their youth-theme ads, often hire students to peddle beer on campus. Heavy drinkers are the target, claims CSPI, of the ''have more than one'' approach.

Of course, many companies aim their advertising at the youth market, or try to promote heavy use of their products. The difference in this case, alcohol industry critics say, is that alcohol is a potentially dangerous drug.

''Alcohol abuse is simply a blight on our society,'' says David Greenberg, legislative director of the Consumer Federation of America, another group which is part of the regulation effort. Forty percent of US households have an alcohol problem, says Greenberg, citing a Harris poll.

But alcohol industry representatives reply that blaming alcoholism on beer, wine, and liquor ads is like blaming auto ads for highway crashes. They hotly dispute all their critics' charges.

Most alcohol ads, they say, focus on the product - not youth or overindulgence. And they point out that ads are controlled by the industry itself. For instance, the Distilled Spirits Council, which represents hard-liquor manufacturers, tells its members not to advertise on radio or TV.

''We're the only industry in America with a voluntary ban on broadcast advertising,'' says Jeff Peterson, a council spokesman.

The CSPI and its allies, however, are pushing for more stringent regulation. On Nov. 21, the coalition sent the FTC a petition asking the agency to:

* Ban all alcohol advertising aimed at young people and heavy drinkers.

* Ban special youth-oriented alcohol marketing efforts, such as sponsorship of rock concerts.

* Require that all alcoholic-beverage ads contain a notice warning of the hazards of alcohol abuse.

* Require more public-service messages warning of alcohol's dangers.

These actions would not solve America's alcohol problem, but they would help a great deal - especially if combined with a new educational campaign in schools , says Jacobson of CSPI.

Other alcohol-control measures favored by CSPI include higher excise taxes, and calorie and ingredient listings on alcoholic beverage labels.

The key question the FTC must decide in this case is whether more government intervention in this area, to protect US citizens from themselves, is justified. An FTC spokesmen says he cannot comment on whether the agency is already studying alcoholic beverage advertising, or on what its response to the coalition's petition will be.

CSPI and its allies will get an answer. ''They won't just be dropping it into a dark hole,'' says the FTC spokesman.

But the reply could simply be a letter declining to take action. ''We'll respond as we see fit,'' says the spokesman.

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