YOUTHS are bombarded with incessant beer and wine advertising on TV and radio, says Patricia Taylor, who co-chairs the Center for Science in the Public Interest.
"It normalizes drinking; it makes everyone think that everybody drinks. But 40 per cent of Americans report that they don't drink at all."
She sees one possible remedy in a Senate bill that would require health warnings in all alcoholic beverage advertisements. Similar to those used in cigarette advertising, they would include a surgeon general's warning of the risks that medical authorities attribute to drinking during pregnancy.
Four other warnings are also specified: that alcohol impairs the ability to drive a car or operate machinery; that it may be hazardous if used while taking over-the-counter, prescription, or illicit drugs; that drinking alcohol may become addictive; that it is illegal to purchase alcohol for persons under age 21.
Warnings would be required on TV and radio alcohol commercials as well as newspapers, magazines, and billboards that carry alcohol ads.
Sen. Strom Thurmond (R) of South Carolina introduced the measure which is on its way to mark up and could be voted on before the end of the current session.
"When we consider today's world of drive-by shootings, adolescent drug dealers, and street corner sales of crack cocaine," Senator Thurmond says, "it is all too easy to forget that the No. 1 drug problem in this nation is alcohol abuse."
Prospects for passage of the bill are hard to predict, says Ms. Taylor, who recently testified before the Senate Commerce Committee's Consumer Subcommittee on the issue.
"Six months ago they said we would never have a hearing. Now we've had a hearing.... There is tremendous [bipartisan] support for this legislation, and that is growing. What has changed in six months? Public pressure, more willingness to talk about alcohol."
She says support has come from Surgeon General Antonia Novello, who has been crusading against ads by alcohol and tobacco companies that she says are drawing children and young people into using their products. Ms. Novello cited these statistics to the Associated Press: About a third of youths who commit serious crimes consumed alcohol just before the crime. More than 70 per cent of teen suicides involved frequent use of alcohol or drugs. Alcohol is a factor in more than half the rapes among college-age
students. Also, 350,000 children in the eighth grade are binge drinkers, 690,000 by 10th grade.
The legislation would require these warnings to run immediately after the alcohol commercials in an instant form of the "Fairness Doctrine," which the FCC once demanded to air "opposing views" on matters of public interest and which eventually resulted in a ban on tobacco ads on TV.
Taylor says the industry, which sells more than $80 billion of its products annually, is fiercely fighting the legislation, spending $2 billion a year to do so. "That's a lot of influence," Taylor says. "What's disturbing to us is that these ads deny the consequences of alcohol use ... in terms of the messages that are given ... and why we support this legislation is the sheer volume of ads...."
The National Association of Broadcasters testified at the hearing that there is no scientific evidence linking alcohol ads to alcohol abuse and argued that such ads "would simply drive advertisers off the air, encouraging a migration of free sports and other over-the-air programming to pay cable."
Jeffrey Becker, vice president of alcohol issues at the Beer Institute, says, "When you provide warnings of which there is a high level of knowledge on the part of the American public, it tends to dilute or devalue other warnings people do need ... people are less likely to look at other warnings, like those on ladders, hammers, pesticides...."
SPEAKING of the time used for such a warning, Mr. Becker says, "It would be the end of the 15-second commercial. We look at it as a ban on broadcasting."
The Distilled Spirits Council also opposes the bill.
"[The bill] is inappropriate at best, harmful at worst, in the critical objective of reducing alcoholic abuse," says council spokeswoman Janet Flynn. "The facts need to be understood that the US is not awash in alcohol. According to the United States' own statistics, underage drinking is at its lowest level since 1974, fatal accidents involving teen-age drunk drivers are down 39 percent since 1982.
"Our industry already has a highly self-regulating code. We voluntarily don't advertise [on radio and television]. We're a legitimate industry and a legal product and have every right to First Amendment rights."
John De Luca, president of the Wine Institute, the industry association for California wineries, says of the bill: "We in the wine world see this as an attempt to expunge the word moderation from our vocabulary [comparing wine] with drugs, addictions, gateway drugs, drugs of choice, recreational drugs, trying to equate a glass of Chardonnay with crack cocaine."
"The ban is an enormous First Amendment issue, expropriaton of property, what you put on [broadcasting] as your own message. The real aim of the legislation is the equivalent of a ban without putting it that way," he alleges.