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Booze and Its Backers

June 16, 1999

Federal drug czar Barry R. McCaffrey has launched a $1-billion media campaign to dissuade youngsters from substance abuse. Not a penny, however, will address the substance that today's teenagers are abusing the most: alcohol.

With youth consumption on the rise since the early 1990s, even McCaffrey acknowledges that alcohol leads to more teenage deaths than other drugs combined. Nevertheless, he insists that including alcohol in the campaign would only dilute its basic message, that kids should avoid illegal drugs.

That's hard to swallow, given federal studies showing that 67% of children who start drinking alcohol before age 15 end up using illicit drugs. And that adults who started drinking as children are nearly eight times more likely to use cocaine than those who did not.

That's why the House Appropriations Committee should pass an amendment by Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-Los Angeles), requiring McCaffrey to include underage drinking in his campaign's targets.

Ideally, the government would not be spending any money at all to reach the American people on TV and radio: Broadcasters promised in 1996 to offer more free public-service spots, just before Congress gave them, without cost, a portion of the supposedly public airwaves that would have fetched $70 billion on the open market. Given that McCaffrey's money has already been allocated, however, Congress' focus should be on how he can spend it wisely.

The people scrambling to defeat Roybal-Allard's amendment are unable to offer any sound reason why alcohol should be excluded from McCaffrey's campaign. But they do have a clear stake in opposing the amendment. Leading the charge against it is Rep. Anne M. Northrup (R-Ky.). She received nearly twice as much campaign money from the alcoholic beverage industry in 1997 and 1998 as any of her colleagues on the House Appropriations Committee. At her side is a coalition of advertising firms, called the Partnership for a Drug-Free America, that have benefited handsomely from the $1 billion the alcohol industry spent last year on promotions.

On Thursday, the executives of those firms will meet at the annual American Advertising Conference in Washington. In a vivid illustration of the capital's incestuous world, the opening speaker will be Gen. Barry McCaffrey.

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