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Strong brew


After U.S. Surgeon General Antonia Novello and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms joined last week in criticizing Maryland's G. Heileman Brewing Co. for targeting a high-alcohol malt liquor at inner-city blacks and Hispanics, the company has backed off its controversial advertising campaign. But the brouhaha over PowerMaster will remain fraught with hypocrisy so long as the nation continues in its complacency over the deeper, virtually unacknowledged issue of who consumes the products of America's brewing industry.

Studies show that more than half of all American adults drink alcoholic beverages. That in itself is neither surprising nor particular cause for alarm. What is worrisome, however, is the fact that around 75 percent of all the alcohol sold in this country is consumed by just 15 percent of the drinkers.

In effect, that means the beverage industry is sustained by a relatively small number of people who clearly are drinking too much. Put another way, if the industry stopped selling to problem drinkers and alcoholics, it would probably be out of business.

This is the dirty little secret of the alcohol beverage industry, which has long known that the bulk of its sales are to alcohol-addicted people who have virtually surrendered control over their lives to the drinking habit. Society pays a frightful price for this debilitating mass addiction -- in everything from higher health care costs and highway accident rates to lost productivity on the job, spouse and child abuse and family breakups.

Yet we continue to pretend that alcohol use, because it is legal, somehow "safer" than illegal use of drugs like cocaine and marijuana, which the nation has spent so much energy and treasure to eradicate. Why can we not see that anything capable of creating the havoc associated with alcohol abuse -- be it hard liquor, fortified wine, beer or just too much bubbly champagne -- ought to be viewed as strong brew indeed?

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