With brakes being applied to their wide wheels of fortune, promoters of America's most dangerous drug -- alcohol -- are appealing to the public for help. The Beer Institute, fighting a possible federal tax increase on its brew, is waging a full-page ad campaign, the expensive and often desperate means of one-sided self-serving communication.
The Beer Institute, a Washington trade group, has gone into more than 60 newspapers to stir the nation's 80 million beer drinkers to raise their voices as high as their steins in opposition to increased taxes. Read our sips, says the beer lobby: "Beer drinkers are responsible, hard-working men and women who already pay more than their fair share of taxes."
Like many ads of this kind, it's all suds. Federal excise taxes on beer haven't been raised since Harry Truman was president. One explanation is that the industry contributes heavily to politicians' reelection campaigns. In "The Best Congress Money Can Buy," Philip Stern reports that beer political action committees -- "SIXPACs" -- are among Washington's most reliable donors.
Purveyors of the alcohol drug ought to be taking out full-page ads to thank Congress for decades of leniency. The Center for Science in the Public Interest reports that less than 1 percent of America's federal revenue comes from alcohol excise taxes, against 3 percent in Canada and Japan and 5.4 percent in England. In the United States, alcohol in liquor is taxed four times the rate of alcohol in beer.
If beer and wine were taxed at the liquor rate, as well as adjusted for inflation since 1972, a can of beer would be taxed 26 cents, not the current 2.7 cents. This would add $15.3 billion annually to federal revenues, a sum that is still a fraction of the economic losses due to alcohol abuse.
With a sobered George Bush calling for new taxes, it appears that the beer industry's decades-long happy hour is about to end. A Wall Street Journal-NBC poll reports that support for higher alcohol and tobacco taxes has risen to a record 83 percent.
Beer barons have an exceptionally large nerve posturing before the public that they are being roughed up by the proposal of a tax hike. With the rest of the country about to enter a contract agreeing that raising taxes is essential to lower the national debt, here is the beer industry -- fearing a decline in profits -- saying "not us."
Its keg-sized arrogance is in keeping with the base ethics of alcohol merchants and their advertisers overall. Alcohol ads in radio, television and print outlets, which totaled $1.3 billion in 1988, assault the truth that this is an incalculably potent drug. To advertise it as a fun beverage that enhances merriment and conviviality mocks the reality that 105,000 alcohol-related homicides, drownings, fires, auto crashes, industrial accidents and deaths from liver cirrhosis occur annually. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism puts the cost to society at $135 billion a year, against $5.7 billion collected federally on alcohol taxes.
An official of the Beer Institute defends his industry's advertising ethics: "To be successful in a competitive market, you show attractive people doing attractive things." And avoid the unattractive: the grief caused by drinking drivers who kill and injure, families wrecked by alcoholism, and alcohol-related birth defects.
Resentment is growing against the makers and sellers of alcohol. On July 18, the House Commerce Subcommittee on Transportation and Hazardous Materials held hearings on legislation proposed by Rep. Joseph Kennedy (D-Mass.) to require health warnings and safety messages for all alcohol ads. "With children seeing tens of thousands of ads promoting alcohol, it's not surprising that youngsters are as familiar with Spuds MacKenzie as they are with Batman," said a physician from the American Academy of Pediatrics. "The message children get from glossy alcohol ads is not that this drug can cause serious health risks -- rather it is one of sweeping social acceptance of alcohol consumption."
While pediatricians justifiably raise hell, calls to raise beer taxes continue. They haven't risen since 1951, a long time for a beer bust.