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The Lesser Evil? : Alcohol-Control Activists Hope to Use Anti-Smoking Campaigns as a Springboard, but Wonder Why Tobacco Gets All the Press

October 24, 1995|SHARI ROAN | TIMES HEALTH WRITER

If anti-smoking advocates have their way, the cigarette ads featuring Joe Camel will someday be banned.

But if the camel is out lawed, so, too, should the Budweiser ants and frogs, says another coalition of health groups that disapprove of the ads. The cartoonish commercials, they say, lure minors to drink alcohol.

On two separate fronts, the fight is on to eliminate ads that may help persuade young people to take up substances possibly hazardous to their health--with alcohol-control activists hoping to use the success of the anti-smoking campaign as a springboard.

But it's clear that drinking is still regarded as the lesser of the two evils and that an anti-alcohol campaign may be the tougher battle to wage.

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In a major victory for anti-smoking forces, President Clinton announced in August a plan to discourage youth from smoking by allowing the Food and Drug Administration to classify tobacco as an addictive drug. Under this approach, cigarette vending machines, advertising deemed attractive to youth and tobacco company sponsorship of sporting events could be prohibited.

But within weeks of Clinton's announcement, a consortium of health groups, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, the National PTA and the National Council of Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, fired off a letter to the President asking him "to demonstrate consistency" by eliminating alcohol ads and marketing that targets youth.

"President Clinton has taken a big step, but there is another legal product for people over the age of 21 that has consequences that aren't benign and that we should take a look at as well," says Sara Kayson of the Washington, D.C.-based Coalition for the Prevention of Alcohol Problems. "I think there are parallels between the alcohol ads and cigarette ads. The alcohol industry knows just as well as the tobacco industry that if people don't start using their product by a certain age, they won't be adult consumers of those products."

But while it may seem logical to ask, "If tobacco is bad for kids, isn't alcohol too?" there are many reasons ads and marketing gimmicks for alcohol may persist for many years, experts say.

"People talk about a smoke-free society by the year 2000. But no one talks about an alcohol-free society by the year 2000," says Laurie Leiber, director of the Center on Alcohol Advertising, a Berkeley watchdog group that works to prevent underage drinking. "There are many people comfortable with getting rid of smoking, but prohibition is not the goal of anyone I know."

This, despite the fact that both smokers and heavy drinkers tend to take up their habits in adolescence.

According to the FDA, nine out of 10 smokers start in the childhood or teen years. Among high school seniors, about 31% smoke, according to the 1995 University of Michigan Survey Research Center report. Of the 3,000 children who begin smoking each day, 1,000 will eventually die of a tobacco-related disease.

According to a recent national survey, two-thirds of high school seniors identify themselves as current drinkers and as many as 35% of high school seniors drink heavily. Alcohol-related injuries are the single leading cause of death among youth and young adults, and 18 million Americans end up as alcoholics or problem drinkers, Kayson says.

"Our argument [against alcohol ads] is that one episode of drinking can lead to death [through] drinking and driving, pedestrian deaths, being a victim of crime," she says. "We don't mean to minimize smoking, but it's a problem that evolves over a lifetime."

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Yet, in American culture smoking is considered a greater evil and tobacco company executives more villainous, health experts say.

"There is a major difference in the climate around these two drugs," says Joel Grube, a researcher with the Prevention Research Center in Berkeley who has studied the effects of alcohol ads on youth.

"People get more upset about kids smoking than kids drinking. Drinking is seen as a rite of passage, and I think people don't see the link between drinking and trauma and injury," he says.

Adds Kayson: "There is the argument that there is no good use of cigarettes health-wise. With alcohol, it's different because there are people who can drink without experiencing negative consequences."

The high-profile anti-smoking crusade--which included public release of cigarette company documents showing executives knew in the 1970s that tobacco was addictive--has tainted the image of cigarette manufacturers.

"Most of the public doesn't trust the tobacco industry," says Joe Marx, a spokesman for the American Heart Assn. "They [tobacco companies] are probably considered more unctuous than the alcoholic beverage industry."

The Joe Camel marketing campaign, as well as merchandise offers attractive to youth such as T-shirts and electronic equipment, has provoked the most criticism.

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