WASHINGTON -- Attacked by health groups and the U.S. surgeon general, the beer industry and its allies are evoking history to defend their brew.
In a news release, an industry-backed group called the Beer Drinkers of America asserts that "beer helped shape civilization as we know it."
"Ancient Egyptian wedding engagements -- beer was there. Religious rites in 6000 B.C. Babylonia -- beer was there. The Mayflower's voyage to the New World -- beer was there. Name the occasion, beer was probably there," says Bill Schreiber, president of the group.
Anheuser-Busch, the industry giant, has run television advertisements since 1989 that emphasize beer's place in American traditions.
"Our founding fathers thought highly of beer," says one commercial. "In fact, the Continental Congress made it a part of every American soldier's daily ration."
The industry is smarting from attacks on its advertising and marketing. On Nov. 4, Surgeon General Antonia C. Novello urged makers of beer, wine and liquor to voluntarily end advertising that she says appeals to teen-agers.
At the same time, a coalition of consumer groups is pressing for legislation that would require alcoholic beverage ads to in
clude health warnings.
The pressure on the alcohol industry has been mounting for several years in response to growing public concern about alcohol abuse and its effects, particularly drunken driving. The concern about alcohol coincides with the rising alarm about illegal drugs -- a linkage that in turn alarms the beer industry.
"Comparing beer to an illegal narcotic is insidious, dangerous and insulting to responsible adult beer drinkers," says Schreiber, whose group boasts 600,000 members and receives about half its funding from beer companies.
Schreiber may be exaggerating only slightly when he warns that there is a "growing movement" against beer. Dr. David F. Musto of Yale University says he believes "we're into a third temperance movement," the first two having peaked in the 1850s and 1920s, respectively.
"Alcohol consumption has been gradually declining since about 1980," says Musto, an expert on drug trends and a professor of psychiatry and the history of medicine. "And the actions against the alcoholic beverage industry, steps taken against alcohol, are growing, I would say, exponentially.
"You have the increase in the drunk-driving penalties that began about the early 1980s, and you have the national raising of the drinking age to 21 in 1984. You have the labeling of alcoholic beverage bottles in 1989 and now you have many suggestions to limit advertising of alcohol or even eliminate it."
Musto notes that one-third of Americans don't drink at all, while another third consume only 5 to 10 percent of all alcohol. The remaining third drink all the rest.
"That means that at any time you have a potential majority of Americans who could see alcohol go without it bothering them," Musto says. "I think this is a very important factor in the long-range attitude about alcohol. If you get two-thirds thinking this is nothing but bad, you could see where the alcohol industry would be nervous."
The beer industry is particularly nervous because it advertises extensively on television and by its own calculation accounts for 55 percent of all alcoholic beverages consumed in the United States.
Beer consumption has remained level much of the past decade, resisting the downward sales trend reported by the liquor and wine industries.
Beer makers aren't willing to follow Novello's wishes and change their advertising, says Beer Institute vice president Jeff Becker.
"Advertising doesn't influence people to drink or to abuse the product," Becker says. "It promotes brand preferences."
He says beer companies need to sit down with Novello and give her their side of the story: that the industry is spending "tens of millions of dollars" a year to educate the public about alcohol abuse. "It's a very serious effort on the part of brewers," he says.
In just the past few days, Anheuser-Busch has mailed reporters a package of educational materials the beer industry is distributing to parents, schools and others. The company is a major sponsor of BACCHUS, or Boost Alcohol Consciousness Concerning the Health of University Students, a national group encouraging students to develop responsible attitudes toward alcoholic beverages.
Simultaneously, the industry is underscoring the role it says beer has played in history.
Schreiber's group, drawing on the work of beer historian Will Anderson, says one reason the Pilgrims stopped at Plymouth Rock was that they had run out of beer. It cites this entry in a Mayflower passenger's diary:
"We could not now take time for further search or consideration, our victuals being much spent, especially our beere."
But, to a critic such as Pat Taylor, the industry's efforts to glorify its past are part of a campaign to discredit people who are concerned about alcohol abuse by painting them as prohibitionists attacking "the very values on which our society is based."
Taylor is director of the alcohol policies project at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a private advocacy group pushing for mandatory health warnings in alcoholic beverage advertising.
Musto sees the industry's image-burnishing in another light.
In past "temperance movements the brewing industry has traditionally attempted to distinguish itself from distilled spirits and even from wine," he says. "You've had advertising campaigns in the eras before, even during World War I, which argued that beer was the drink of moderation -- and in fact that beer was liquid bread."
One of the anomalies of the current concern about alcohol is that less of it is being consumed than before.
"The peak of alcohol consumption in American history was about 1830 and we drank two to three times more," Musto says.