By Jim Gogek and Ed Gogek
While the tobacco industry cowers under a fusillade of million-dollar lawsuits, government regulations and condemnation from all sides, another industry sells its highly addictive and dangerous drug in peace and harmony.
This billion-dollar industry openly manipulates the drug content of its product, catering to addiction. They pitch their ads to youth, presenting the drug as glamorous and hip. And unlike tobacco, they can still advertise on TV.
While the tobacco industry has rightfully become our nation’s corporate pariah, the alcohol industry has been ignored.
Beer, wine and liquor companies nave managed to avoid the spotlight with slick advertising campaigns that condemn underage drinking and drunk driving while encouraging “responsible” use.
The ads present an image of genteel drinkers who nurse one glass through a whole evening, or athletic hard bodies who can quaff a brew or two and never appear drunk
Since most Americans are either teetotalers or occasional drinkers there’s an automatic tendency to assume those ads present an accurate picture of drinking in America.
But they don’t. While most people drink moderately — one or two drinks on occasion — that’s not where the alcohol industry makes its money. The Alcohol Research Group in Berkeley has compiled surveys of thousands of drinkers. They found that heavy drinking supports the industry.
Among adults, 5 percent of the population drinks 60 percent of all alcoholic beverages sold. Half of all alcohol is consumed by heavy drinkers — those who drink an average of nine drinks every day.
Most of these are problem drinkers or alcoholics, people so addicted to alcohol they can’t quit without help. Many of the rest are reckless binge drinkers.
This research leads us to question the beer, wine and liquor ads that make it sound like the industry only wants people to drink in moderation. Does this industry really want to eliminate over half its income? Probably not.
What’s more likely is that the alcohol industry wants to avoid the tobacco companies’ nightmare. They want to avoid the public perception that they make their money off people who are addicted, or that they try to get young people started.
But if they’re not after the youth market, why have they introduced so many cheap, sweet wines and wine coolers? Alcohol that looks and tastes like soda pop appeals to kids as surely as Joe Camel ads. And if the industry isn’t catering to the addicted or to young abusers — people who drink only to get drunk— then why are they selling highly fortified wine and malt liquor?
Increasing the alcohol content of wine and beer is no way to encourage “responsible” drinking. And it’s no different than the accusation that tobacco companies manipulate nicotine content. If a cigarette smoker has grounds to sue the tobacco industry for attempting to addict people to nicotine, then a street drunk hooked on Night Train or Cisco could use the same argument.
The alcohol and tobacco industries have a lot in common. Both depend financially on people who are addicted. Both profit from people who use their products dangerously. Both target young people.
Tobacco companies have been accused of manipulating drug content; alcohol companies surely do. Both advertise heavily to the poor and minorities. And both sell products that kill huge numbers each year.
In deaths directly attributable to the drug, tobacco is the bigger killer, claiming 400,000 lives per year to alcohol’s 100,000. And the $20 billion a year in tobacco-related medical costs beats alcohol’s $10 billion.
But alcohol has some ugly statistics of its own. Alcohol is responsible for nearly half of all traffic fatalities. Two-thirds of all murders in the United States involve alcohol. It’s also a major cause of child abuse, domestic violence, welfare dependency and homelessness. Secondhand smoke pales in comparison.
It’s obvious why our society is taking aim at tobacco companies. But why is the alcoholic beverage industry getting off so lightly?
Jim Gogek is an editorial writer and columnist for the San Diego Union Tribune. Ed Gogek is a Phoenix-based psychiatrist who works in community mental health. © 1996 NY Times Features Syndicate.