Tougher Warning Labels on Beer Ads, Containers Sought

A MASSACHUSETTS lawmaker is pushing legislation to curb what she calls irresponsible advertising of alcoholic beverages. The legislation, filed recently by state Rep. Suzanne Bump, would require warning labels on all alcoholic beverage advertisements, including spoken warnings for radio and TV. Representative Bump is also pushing an accompanying bill to prohibit ads for alcoholic beverages that are aimed at young people under 21 and ads that link drinking to social or athletic success. Her two measures are in step with a nationwide effort to increase public awareness of alcohol abuse. The Massachusetts proposal is similar to legislation pending at the federal level. Several other states and some cities some adopted measures aimed at curbing the advertising of alcoholic drinks.

Bump's alcohol bill would require the use of four different warning messages to be used on a rotating basis in advertisements. The messages would tell consumers of general health risks associated with alcohol consumption, birth defects associated with drinking during pregnancy, alcohol addiction, and the dangers of drinking and driving. The bill would mandate fines of up to $10,000 per violation.

The Massachusetts lawmaker says her legislation is ``long overdue'' because alcohol advertising is increasingly targeted at young people. ``It's especially critical that we do something at this time in light of the ads and promotion ... aimed at children,'' Bump says. She points to toy cars, posters, and T-shirts for kids made with beer logos. The major enemy, she says, is Budweiser's ``Spuds McKenzie,'' the beer company's comical ``spokesdog'' who frequently appears in advertisements and is sold as a s tuffed animal. ``He was depicted in all these beach scenes with bikini-clad women and all these young guys,'' she says. ``This campaign was not aimed at adults of legal drinking age.''

The federal bill which Bump's warning label legislation is similar to is sponsored by Sen. Strom Thurmond (R) of South Carolina in the United States Senate and Rep. Joseph Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts in the House of Representatives. That measure would require five rotating warning messages on print advertisements along with a toll-free number to call for information about alcohol use.

Laws or proposals in other states contain similar provisions. Ten states as well as various counties and cities require warning posters to be displayed wherever alcohol is sold. In California, posters are displayed in public restrooms warning of birth defects associated with alcohol consumption. A bill has been filed in Maine to require warning posters as well. Each posture would contain five different health messages at once; they would be posted wherever alcohol is sold or served.

Bump, who has long been involved with efforts to educate the public on alcohol abuse, helped enact a 1988 federal law requiring warning labels on all alcoholic beverage containers. But she says that law doesn't go far enough. Current container warning labels are ``vague and jumbled and do not have the force that the originally proposed warning labels would have,'' she says.

Dr. John Slade, a specialist in addiction at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, agrees. But he sees a trend toward more-prominent warning labels for both cigarettes and alcohol. In Canada, for example, cigarette warnings take up one quarter of the front and back space of packages, he says.

But the alcohol industry says such warnings, particularly spoken warnings for TV and radio, go too far. According to Lon Anderson, vice-president of public affairs at the Washington-based Beer Institute, breweries can't afford devoting 10-second warnings within their normal 30-second advertising time slots. The cost of such warnings would outweigh the price to buy the advertising time, he says.

``If they [breweries] have to spend 10 seconds of that time they've bought on a 10-second warning, you're talking about a lot of time to say bad things about their product,'' Mr. Anderson says.

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