Federal Trade Commission Chairman James C. Miller III yesterday told a Senate subcommittee that it was up to Congress and not his agency to act on a controversial proposal to ban beer and wine commercials from the airwaves.
Testifying before the Senate Subcommittee on Alcohol and Drug Abuse, Miller said that even if regulating such ads would have public benefits, "I would prefer the decision be made by the nation's elected representatives rather than five unelected commissioners."
But the FTC chairman, who has aggressively pushed a deregulatory philosophy on his agency, made it clear that he did not support such a move, saying, "It's not the Joe and Jenny Sixpacks who merit our attention -- it's the abusers." He added that such advertising was "at most, a small part of the problem and an even smaller part of the solution."
Yesterday's hearing came in response to moves by public interest groups ranging from the National PTA to the Center for Science in the Public Interest calling for a ban on beer and wine commercials broadcast on radio and television, charging that such ads encouraged young people to drink and were partly responsible for such alcohol abuse as drunk driving.
The groups have formed a coalition called Project SMART -- for Stop Marketing Alcohol on Radio and TV -- saying that if an outright ban of such ads isn't possible, they want Congress to require stations to air counter-ads warning of the dangers of alcohol.
Currently, no bills for such a ban are pending before either the House or the Senate. The House is expected to hold hearings on the question later this year.
Sen. Paula Hawkins (R-Fla.), who chaired the hearing -- also attended by Sen. Thomas Eagleton (D-Mo.) and briefly visited by Sen. Strom Thurmond (D-S.C.) -- said, "The jury is still out in my mind." The hearing pitted the ban's advocates and opponents in a clash of statistics, studies and videotaped advertisements.
Beer and wine industry representatives, asserting that there was no clear link established between advertising and alcohol consumption, charged that supporters of the ban were trying to bring back Prohibition.
"Instant entrepreneurs in social engineering is not what this society needs," said Alan G. Easton, vice president of corporate affairs for Miller Brewing Co.
He pointed out that similar bans in other countries, including provinces of Canada, had a negligible impact on alcohol consumption.
Donald B. Shea, president of the U.S. Brewers Association, argued that the industry's estimated annual $750 million expenditure on radio and TV commercials doesn't lead to increased consumption of alcohol, but rather reflects a battle between industry leaders to take market share away from each other.
In fact, Shea said, "beer sales have been either level or declining since 1982 during a period when advertising expenditures reached an all-time high."
"Broadcast advertising does not encourage people to misuse alcohol," said Edward O. Fritts, president of the National Association of Broadcasters, whose members would stand to lose millions of dollars of revenue should such a ban be approved.
However, said Michael F. Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, "Objective minds can hardly deny that the overall effect of the ads is to glamorize alcohol and foster the notion that drinking is the key to achieving personal goals."