A panel established by Congress to study drug-free schools recommended higher taxes on beer and cigarettes yesterday as a way to curb students' use of alcohol and tobacco, which the panel described as "the most widely used drugs among young people today."
In its final report, the National Commission on Drug-Free Schools suggested that Congress consider using the additional tax revenue to fund an independent "counter-advertising campaign aimed at curbing alcohol and tobacco use by underage youth." California has authorized increases in so-called sin taxes for similar prevention programs.
The 26-member panel, cochaired by Education Secretary Lauro F. Cavazos and outgoing national drug policy director William J. Bennett, concluded that the alcohol and tobacco industries have targeted underage youth "with highly attractive and persuasive promotion techniques," despite voluntary advertising codes against those practices.
The panel recommended that Congress mandate an independent review of tobacco and alcohol advertising by 1992, and said that if the targeting of young people is found to continue, Congress should consider banning ads and promotions for those products. Eight members of Congress sat on the panel, which was formed last year and held hearings around the country.
Increases in federal and state taxes on tobacco and alcohol, the panel argued, would also curb use among young people. "The extremely low cost of beer helps to explain its popularity," the panel said. William Modzeleski, its executive director, said the tax increases contemplated would raise the price of beer by "nickels and cents."
Representatives of the beer and tobacco industries immediately attacked the panel's proposals, questioning both their constitutionality and likely effectiveness. The industry representatives also challenged the panel's focus on advertising as an influence on student consumption of their products.
"Advertising doesn't affect how you use a product or who uses it," said Jeff Becker, spokesman for the Beer Institute. He said advertising mainly influences which brand a consumer selects.
Thomas Lauria, spokesman for the Tobacco Institute, said Congress has consistently rejected broadening a cigarette advertising ban because "it's just too unconstitutional." No cigarette ads have appeared on television for 20 years.
Becker said "commercial free speech" would be constrained if his industry was required to finance advertising against its own products -- which Modzeleski described as one option.
He also disputed the idea that raising the price of beer would reduce underage use. "The reason that kids drink has very little to do with price. It has a lot to do with peer pressure," he said.