Stop New Liquor Ads Before They Start

American colleges and universities already have their hands full with a prevalent binge-drinking culture

Twenty or 30 years ago, novels and movies depicted journalists as a hard-drinking bunch.

As a nondrinker myself, I wasn't caused any career problems by my colleagues who drank, but I noted that overindulgence in liquor caused a fair amount of misery, family breakups, professional disaster, and, in a few cases, self-destruction.

Today, journalism is a much more sober profession. Journalists are more likely to drink less alcohol, and often none at all.

In part that is a reflection of trends in society in general. While there is still a great deal of experimentation with alcohol at the high school and college level, many more-mature citizens have become better educated about its effect on their health, safety, and general well-being.

Why, then, is the liquor industry trying to turn the clock back? For some months, marketers of distilled spirits have been experimenting with a return of radio and television advertising of their products after a long voluntary ban. In the case of radio advertising, the ban dates back to 1936, and to 1948 in the case of television. Now the marketers of vodka, whiskey, gin, rum, and other hard liquors have gone public with their plan to boost sales through television advertising - in time for the Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year's holiday season.

A responsible decision?

Already the distilled-spirits industry spends more than $230 million a year on advertising, most of it for print and outdoor billboards. But the industry covets the audience in its early 20s that is presently being wooed on television by the beer and wine manufacturers with about $700 million a year in advertising.

The aim of the new advertising plan is to hook a new generation on a product that clearly has an impact on the rate of drunk driving incidents and other community problems. The distilled-spirits industry responds with the argument that its advertising will be "responsible."

A lot of critics don't buy that. Neither does President Clinton. In his weekend radio address he blasted the plan for expanded liquor advertising as "irresponsible." By introducing the ads, the president said, the liquor industry will be "exposing our children to such ads before they know how to handle alcohol or are legally allowed to do so."

The major television networks are skittish about accepting the new hard liquor ads. They understand, and fear, the reaction of parents and organized antiliquor groups. But the networks no longer control the market. With the explosion of new technology, there are hundreds of independent radio and television stations, along with computer and cable outlets.

Their reaction to the new advertising campaign should be carefully monitored. If they air it, viewers should protest. Alcohol use, abuse, and addiction is one of the most serious problems confronting our society today. Nobody in search of a bigger dollar profit margin should be allowed to inject a new generation of Americans into the problem with image-advertising depicting hard liquor use as "cool."

Ironically, the new advertising is intended to debut at a time when there is substantial debate on college campuses about the use and impact of alcohol. The Commission on Substance Abuse at Colleges and Universities reported last year that 95 percent of violent crimes on campuses, as well as 40 percent of academic problems, are alcohol-related.

At the University of Notre Dame, whose president headed the commission, the campus daily newspaper polled students and discovered that 72 percent were regular drinkers, with 49 percent getting drunk twice a week.

Schools deal with alcohol

But some other universities that previously permitted alcohol on campus have banned it. At some, such as the University of Colorado last year, fraternities and sororities have voted to ban alcohol from gatherings held in chapter houses. Some students on campuses where alcohol is permitted have elected to have alcohol-free dormitories for nondrinkers.

As David Hoekema, academic dean at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich., wrote recently in a letter to The New York Times, we cannot "abdicate all responsibility for students' moral life. Both faculty and student-life staff members have a duty to help young adults understand what it means to make responsible choices."

The most effective cutbacks in college-age alcohol use take place when students themselves take the initiative, rather than responding to administration-imposed bans. But resisting the college binge-drinking culture requires some maturity on the part of teenagers and early 20-year-olds. They don't need to be undermined by liquor dealers in search of higher profits at society's expense.

*John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, is professor of journalism and director of the International Media Studies Program at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah.

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