Pols Under the Influence

THE tobacco industry has been roundly criticized for using a cartoon figure, Joe Camel, to catch the interest of youngsters. Why no similar outcry about the beverage industry's use of animated alligators, frogs, and lizards to pitch beer?

In both cases, advertisers are using images geared toward youth to sell products patently dangerous to the young. The beer companies may argue that their product is less lethal than cigarettes, and can be used in moderation. But the statistics about deaths from drunk driving (more than 17,000 yearly, many of them young people), the prevalence of binge drinking on college campuses, and the link between drinking and crimes of violence justify the term "lethal" for alcohol too.

And the addictive dangers of alcohol - with beer as the starting drink for most teens - are beyond dispute.

So back to that original question: Why no effort to regulate the pervasive TV advertising of beer? The answer, simply, is that brewers and distributors of beer have powerful Washington lobbies. They easily get the ear of lawmakers and they pour money into the campaign war chests of some of the most influential people on Capitol Hill.

Steps to hike taxes on the sale of alcoholic beverages, to hold hearings on the impact of alcohol advertising, or to lower the blood alcohol level that determines if a driver is legally drunk - all run into a stout wall of resistance from Big Alcohol, the combined political muscle of the beer, wine, and distilled spirits industries.

The same dynamic used to work well for Big Tobacco. Until, that is, tobacco's inherent hazards became so widely recognized that even majorities in Congress had to pay more attention to the public weal than to industry lobbyists and campaign donations. Not that tobacco interests have withdrawn from the influence game. The Democratic and Republican national committees have received millions from tobacco firms in the last three years. In fact, the pace of their contributions and lobbying has increased as the industry fights for passage of a national tobacco accord that will shield it from future class-action lawsuits.

Rising on the influence scale - though still short of alcohol and tobacco - is another industry that deals in ruined lives and the exploitation of human weakness: gambling. A recent report in The New York Times noted that campaign contributions by gambling businesses shot from $1.7 million in '92-'93 to $7 million in '95-'96. With casinos and other forms of legalized gambling on a roll nationwide, the industry's interest in influencing public policy has grown, as have its means of doing so.

For gambling, a measure of that influence will be the toughness of the report of the National Gambling Impact Study Commission, whose findings are due in early summer. Will it recommend tough actions, like a federal tax on casinos, or will it whitewash the social and moral problems posed by gambling?

For alcohol, the current test is whether Congress can pass a measure to prod states to lower the blood-alcohol level, and thus toughen drunk-driving enforcement. The outlook for that measure, an amendment to the highway bill, dimmed this week when the House Rules Committee refused to allow it to reach the floor for a vote. It looks, for now, like another victory for the beer and distillers lobbies, which were concerned the measure could depress sales.

All this exposes a seamy side of the money-influence fabric of our national politics. Tobacco's travails show that things can change. Further change depends largely on an enlightened and aroused public.

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