The 'Healthy' Malt Drink Stirs a Debate

Marketing campaign for ginseng-laced malt liquor angers African-American community.

Last November, as the Rev. Paul Scott was walking through a Durham, N.C., convenience store, he saw a poster advertising a new malt liquor. What attracted his attention was the name, "Phat Boy," written in bright colors and in a graffiti style.

Mr. Scott was concerned because the word "phat" in urban slang means "cool" or "hip" and is predominantly used by high school and early-20-year-olds who listen to a form of music known as hip-hop. And then, as he looked closer, he was shocked to see that the producer had included as an ingredient ginseng, considered by some to have a health or even aphrodisiac quality.

"This is definitely the Joe Camel of malt liquor," says Scott, a young Baptist minister who has been holding press conferences every month to highlight the issue.

Now, some national health organizations are also complaining about the product, which they claim is yet another malt liquor aimed at African-Americans. On July 27, the Marin Institute, a drug and alcohol prevention organization, wrote Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin that the product's advertising and labeling may be in violation of federal regulations and promote high-risk drinking among youth. A company ad in trade journals says the product is aimed at the "neXt" generation.

On July 15, some 150 community activists, youth advocates, and health organizations wrote the brewer, United States Beverage Co. of Darien, Conn., asking for the recall of the product. They complained that a significant amount of the product's marketing is targeted toward college campuses. Binge drinking on campuses is a major problem.

The complaints come at a time when the government is showing increasing concern about the impact of alcohol on young people. Last Thursday, the Federal Trade Commission opened up a new inquiry into alcohol advertising, particularly how eight major companies regulate themselves regarding the issue of underage drinking. The information will be sent to Congress in a report.

At the same time, the FTC got two companies to remove ads that the agency felt violated federal law. For example, one ad for Beck's beer combined drinking, boating, and risk taking. "Alcohol advertisers should not run ads that encourage young people to combine drinking with risky activities," says Jodie Bernstein, the director of the FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection.

Alcoholism prevention groups have long been concerned about malt liquor, which has a higher alcohol content than beer and is often sold in 40-ounce containers. "Most of the malt liquor is sold in black communities," says Laurie Leiber, who directs the Center on Alcohol Advertising, which works to reduce alcohol promotions to children. Alfred Powell in his book "Message 'n a Bottle: the 40 oz. Scandal" estimates that in 1995 blacks bought 80 to 90 percent of Colt 45, a malt liquor.

ALCOHOLISM is a significant problem in African-American communities. "Although blacks drink less than whites, the percentage of heavier drinkers is higher and heavy drinking persists later for African-Americans," says George Hacker of the Center for Science in the Public Interest in Washington. Community activists are also alarmed about the link between drinking and violence. Alcohol is a factor in the three leading causes of death for 15- to 24-year-olds, wrote the Marin group in its letter. In the movie "Boyz 'N the Hood," malt liquor played a strong part in a party scene. "You get the idea this is the drink for those who are tough," says Ann Jefferson, a community activist at the Marin Institute.

Some of the malt products have also made hints that drinking their products would aid in sexual matters. Ms. Jefferson with the Marin Institute wonders if that's the idea behind the ginseng in Phat Boy. "I mean what's the point?" she asks.

Jerry Greenstein, one of the owners of US Beverage, says the activists have it all wrong. "We are responsible marketers of alcohol products," he says. For example, he says the product is not targeted to African-Americans despite the use of blacks in its posters. "How can you target something that is not advertised?" he asks. As to the claim he may be violating federal law, he replies, "Is that a fact? That's their opinion."

It is also, however, an area that the FTC may be interested in. The Federal Trade Commission says it looks at more than just ads. "We would consider point of sale and Internet sites to be within our jurisdiction," says Loren Thompson, a lawyer with the agency. Ms. Jefferson thinks the only answer is for the federal government to become involved. "Otherwise, we're just chasing one product after another," she says.

Federal involvement might also make it easier to accomplish something. Last year, when activists tried to get the California Legislature to limit malt liquor to hard liquor stores, the lobby defeated the attempt. Instead, the industry got the Legislature to redefine its product as beer.

With its higher alcohol content level, Leiber says this is going to become a problem for teens. "They usually start drinking beer; now they won't be able to tell the difference. They will just get drunk faster." Federal involvement would also please Scott, who started the whole campaign as part of his efforts to get young black men to act against negative influences. He says, "No one is addressing the problem."

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