Government Ups Pressure on Alcohol


This is not a happy hour for the alcohol industry,which finds itself under increasing scrutiny by the federal government.

The government is stepping up pressure on the industry to moderate its advertising and educate consumers about the dangers of drinking.In the latest action,the Bureau of Alcohol,Tobacco and firearms demanded that G.Heileman Co. change the name of its new malt liquor,PowerMaster,because ATF says"power" advertises the product's high alcohol content.The company agreed last week to stop marketing the brew.

In addition to the ATF,the Surgeon General,the federal Trade Commission,Congress and the Office of National Drug Control Policy are taking a closer look at alcohol.

Bob Martinez,director of drug control policy,sent a shivert through the alcohol industry in june when he said his office-which is concerned mainly with cocaine and other illegal drugs-would become more interested in alcohol and tobacco abuse.

" We can't duck this issue:for young people,alcohol and tobacco are illegal substances, so we will be paying more attention to these problems," he said.

Congress, meanwhile, is considering legislation that would require prominent health and safety warning information in all alcoholic beverage advertising and promotional materials. Public health advocates, who have prodded the government into taking a more assertive role, want still tougher steps, such as sharply higher beer taxes.

In response, the alcohol industry is spending millions of dollars on safe-drinking media campaigns and making large contributions to lawmakers and organizations of potential critics. They don't want to share tobacco's fate, which underwent a similar assault in the 1980s and became stigmatized as a health hazard.

Industry officials complain that "neo-prohibitionists" are exaggerating the dangers of drinking and question whether alcohol is the critics' real target.

"So much of the criticism of our products is really a criticism of all advertising and how products are portrayed," says James Sanders, president of the Beer Institute.

The government's increased interest in alcohol arises from the public's heightened concern about its abuse. Health issues -- from tobacco to illegal drugs and pollutants -- grew in importance in the 1980s and inevitably cast a shadow on alcohol. Some organizations, notably Mothers Against Drunk Driving, became forceful advocates for tighter laws.

A new social consciousness about alcohol and its effects took root. By the end of the decade, the government had begun requiring 41-word health warning labels on alcohol beverage containers. Then last year the government released its first dietary guidelines for Americans defining "moderate" alcohol consumption -- one drink a day for women, two for men. The guidelines also defined a drink: 12 ounces of beer, 5 of wine or 1 1/2 of liquor.

"We think that's a very important development because the alcohol beverage industry talks about respectable drinking, moderate drinking, but there's never any definition of what that means," says Pat Taylor, director of the alcohol policies project at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a private advocacy group.

"It's really important to have that kind of information coming from the government," she says. "Our concern is the alcohol beverage industry is the major educator of the public, especially kids, and they spend over $2 billion a year glamorizing its use."

Ms. Taylor says the center is lobbying for the health warning legislation before Congress and a change in ATF rules governing labeling. Warning labels on alcohol should be more legible, shorter and alternate health messages, she says.

The center also advocates higher excise taxes, particularly on beer, to discourage excessive consumption, and installation of health warning posters wherever alcohol is sold. She says nine states -- Maryland is not one of them -- and several municipalities now require such posters.

On issues such as labeling, advertising and public education, the center has some outspoken allies in government. Surgeon General Antonia C. Novello leaped into the fray last March when she called on beer companies to "quit sponsoring activities for college students during spring break."

Last month she announced the findings of a national survey on youth and alcohol that documented excessive drinking by many teenagers and found widespread ignorance of the effects of alcohol. She is calling for a change in federal law to permit the labeling of alcohol content on containers -- which has been barred since the repeal of Prohibition -- and has commissioned further studies on enforcement of drinking laws governing minors, alcohol marketing and voluntary advertising standards.

Dr. Novello also joined ATF in calling for PowerMaster's name to be changed. But Dr. Novello's criticism goes beyond the ATF's, and is far more worrisome to the alcohol industry.

Dr. Novello said Heileman should stop marketing such products to poor blacks, who are at high risk for alcohol-related diseases, and change the product's name for reasons other than its suggestion of alcohol content. "When you look at PowerMaster, it is almost as if you are giving people an empty and deceitful promise," she said. "It offers power to no one and makes no one a master of anything."

What troubles the industry is that Dr. Novello, who has support from some black community leaders, is asking the industry to do voluntarily what the law does not require. Industry officials say it's presumptuous to deny products and information -- through advertising -- to certain groups.

Mr. Sanders, of the Beer Institute, says "certain other black community leaders take great exception to that point of view, pointing out that that is a patronizing and condescending way to say the blacks can't make the same decision other people make."

"Who's going to play the role of censor on that?" Mr. Sanders adds. "It's in enormous conflict with our concept of freedom of speech."

Mr. Sanders says he has no objection to identifying alcohol content on containers -- but he doesn't think that will help, either. "She's got to remember if the point is to reduce alcohol abuse, which we're concerned about and working toward, I don't think that's going to do too much. People who are into abuse get the product one way or another."

John Fairhall is Washington correspondent for The Evening Sun.

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