An 18-year-old Long Island woman came home from the hospital a few days ago. She had been recuperating from a fractured skull and other injuries sustained in a car crash that for a moment in mid- March jolted the nation out of its casual indifference to highway slaughter.
The crash commanded attention for the body count alone: nine of 10 teen-agers were killed in Mineola, N.Y., at 2 a.m. by a freight train when their van didn't make it through a flashing railroad crossing. The group--good students from good families --had been to a party. While there, it later came out, the driver and others in the van had had a few drinks.
I remember this tragedy for other reasons besides the size of the death toll. The crash occurred a few miles from where I grew up. I know the crossing. The accident also reminded me that my closest boyhood pal died at 16 in a similar car crash in a race against a train.
But I think of this latest tragedy mostly because this is the peak of the high school and college drinking season. Graduation parties and proms mean that cars and the drug alcohol will combine in a suicide stakes that will see a statistical rise in the number of teen-age fatalities and drunk- driving arrests, a number that is already disproportionately high.
Of late, the police and the courts, goaded to action by citizen groups angered and sickened by drinking drivers who turn highways into death traps, have been taking action. But no hopes should be raised. Through the legal system, we are sending the young one message--that it's wrong, stupid and lethal to drive and drink--but through advertising, we send another: drink up, it's Miller time, it's a Stroh's night, head for Busch country, let it be Lowenbrau.
Unlike teen-age sex or teen-age crime, which seem to have created mini-industries to monitor them, few studies on the effects of alcohol advertising on youth have been made. But the ones we do have are telling.
In 1979, researchers from the Scientific Analysis Corp. in San Francisco reported that beer and hard liquor dominated the national advertising in college newspapers. In the sample of 32 papers, half of the ads were for alcohol. The ads were not merely pitches for brands. They were life-style ads with cynical anti-education themes.
One representative ad, the researchers reported, "shows three students coming out of a bookstore. Walking one behind the other, the first and last students are burdened down with a stack of formidable looking tomes while the student in the middle joyously carries three 6-packs of beer. His smile is in contrast to their concern. The caption reads: 'Now Comes Miller Time.'
"Our hero isn't worrying about term papers, reading assignments and finals. He has a better way to cope. The hard work involved in getting an education is compared with another life style which gives beer drinking a high priority. The beer drinker emerges as a charming rascal, the serious students as worried drones."
The alcohol ads in dailies published in large universities, some of which take in $1 million annually in advertising, are payoffs that marketing executives are willing to gamble for. The researchers quoted one executive: "Let's not forget that getting a freshman to choose a certain brand of beer may mean that he will maintain his brand loyalty for the next 20 or 25 years. If he turns out to be a big drinker, the beer company has bought itself an annuity."
The buying is good. The Campus Alcohol Information Center at the University of Florida studied beer-drinking habits of students visiting Daytona Beach during spring break in 1981. Fifty-four percent of the men and 32 percent of the women said they consume five or more cans of beer per sitting.
When the besotted young take to the highways to kill themselves--and us if we venture into the war zones--they are right to judge adult society as hypocritical. Legislatures do not restrain the advertising practices of the alcohol industry: no warning notices about the nation's most dangerous drug, no banning from radio or television, no limitations on access to college newspapers.
We ensure that every hour is the industry's happy hour.