a special program of the National Emergency Medicine Association (NEMA)
Week: 560.6 Guest: George Hacker, Cntr. for Science in the Public Interest, Washington, D.C. Topic: Liquor ads jump onto electronic media Producer/Host: Steve Girard
NEMA: We're with George Hacker, with the Center for Science in the Public Health in Washington, D.C., to talk about the appearance of liquor ads on TV for the first time ever. Kids are pretty knowledgeable about the advertising they see all around them...especially one of the biggest sports sponsors, brewers....
HACKER: We asked junior high school students to name as many Presidents and as many beer brands as they could, and on average, they could name many more beer brands and, in fact, were able to spell the beer brands correctly, and many couldn't even spell the Presidents. So, clearly kids pay attention to these ads on TV and our concern now that liquor ads are beginning to poke their way into the broadcast media as well, is that kids will get as much a dose of liquor ads as they're already getting with beer ads. And that certainly spells trouble for kids, it spells trouble for the public health, and it spells trouble in terms of the overall balance of information that people get about alcohol in our society.
NEMA: Let's back track a bit...there are many people under 40 who perhaps don't even realize why you see a lot of beer ads on TV and radio, but you don't see hard liquor advertised. What were the seeds for that, and what has changed now?
HACKER: The original rationale of the liquor industry to stay off of radio, and then later, television, was to avoid drawing political heat...let's face it, we'd just finished an era of prohibition in which the products were illegal...and that liquor was the principal product that was involved in criminal activities...in smuggling and all the crime that came with prohibition - mainly because that was the only alcoholic beverage in which there was any money really to be made. So it went along with crime. So, in order to keep the political heat down, the liquor industry made a decision not to advertise in the broadcast...first radio medium...so as not to be attacked for promoting its products to underage people. And they extended that...under some scrutiny in the late 40's to television. So, originally the industry just intended to stay out of the political fire by not advertising, and as recently as 1993, the president of the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, which is the trade association for liquor producers in this country, and for many liquor importers as well, testified before Congress that the voluntary ban on liquor advertising on TV and radio was essentially the centerpiece of the industry's responsibility to combat alcohol abuse. They've taken credit so frequently in the past, and distinguished themselves from brewers who routinely target and reach underage kids with their messages, and it's one of the things that we've consistently complimented and congratulated the industry on is that voluntary ban. But now, apparently, given 20 years of falling sales, and their perceived need to eliminate the stigma that liquor has had in our society...the fact that it's regulated quite differently in many respects from beer and wine. In order to eliminate that stigma, and be able to compete more effectively with brewers in particular, liquor industry just made the decision that...to heck with young people, we're going to get in there and appeal to the same mass audience that the brewers are.
NEMA: Let me play devil's advocate for a bit... what's wrong with liquor ads on TV...beer ads are on...and it's the same stuff basically...alcohol....
HACKER: Well, it's certainly true that getting on TV mainstreams a product and gives it an aura of acceptability, of routineness and belonging...and I think that's what the liquor people want with their products. It's a fairly complicated question. There's no dispute that the central ingredient in these beverages - alcohol - is the same in beer, wine and liquor. The liquor people say that alcohol is alcohol is alcohol....it's the same stuff, we should be able to be on if beer is on, and there's no reason to discriminate. Well, in fact, historically, whether for the right reasons or not...we have made some distinctions when it comes to liquor. In many states, you can't buy liquor in the same places where you can buy beer and wine, generally. The advertising restrictions are different. The labeling restrictions are different. We've had different standards and we continue to have different standards when it comes to liquor. It may be that the central ingredient is the same, but there are many ways in which liquor is different: it's much more concentrated than the alcohol in beer and wine, it's served differently, it's consumed at different times, it's not...like wine...consumed primarily with meals, it primarily doesn't come in pre-measured servings, such as beer and wine...in 12 ounce cans or ...There are a number of differences that belie these simplistic notions that alcohol is alcohol is alcohol. Now, we ...we're not entirely...we support the continued voluntary ban on liquor advertising in the broadcast media, principally because it represents a sea change in the advertising of alcohol...it opens up, potentially, the floodgates of advertising in our most powerful, youth oriented media, and we need to preserve the status quo in this instance. On the other hand, we don't think we should turn a blind eye to beer and wine advertising either. The liquor people want a level playing field, which means that they get on....but we believe we can achieve a much more public health friendly and youth friendly playing field...level playing field in another way....and that is to restrict all ads similarly, rather than giving liquor producers the same free ride that brewers have to go after our kids.
NEMA: So, you're advocating giving all alcohol advertisers the same, but restricted access to broadcast media air time....
HACKER: We think that there are a number of reasonable time, place and manner restrictions that would protect children and still allow adults to get the information they might want about these legal products. And time limitations are one....the inclusion of health and safety messages in the advertising would be another...the limitations, potential limitations on the content of advertising, so that at certain hours, when there might be kids around, the ads could only be in black and white, with product only, name only or price....factual information about the product only...no images that are most appealing to kids. Also, the potential for mandatory counter messages...to balance the pro drinking messages with messages that give people a much broader sense of the potential risks related to drinking. Those are among the measures that we're promoting, as well as other bills to reduce the incentive by producers to advertise as well. It's a very complicated political situation. In order to avoid 6 to 8 years of endless litigation, it's probably preferable to get voluntary standards from all of the industries...that would go far to eliminating the appeals to young people. Frankly, that may not happen given the hundreds of millions of dollars that are at stake here.
NEMA: How does someone who wants to express an opinion on this issue so that it will make an impact?
HACKER: There are a lot of things going on right now. The chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, Reed Hunt, who has been outspoken on this issue, would like to issue a notice of inquiry...to essentially begin an investigation by his agency of the effects of liquor advertising on underage people. He's lacking now a couple of votes on the commission, but that agency has a toll free number that listeners can call to encourage the agency to take up this issue. And the number is 1-888-CALL FCC.
NEMA: Additionally, the Senate Commerce Committee has scheduled hearings on the matter for the second week in February, so there's still time to contact your representative and give your input on this issue. George Hacker of the Center for Science in the Public Interest has been our guest. He says that liquor companies are currently on only a handful of radio and TV stations....while all of the networks and the large broadcast groups, and all but one national cable company have refused to air liquor ads. But what the liquor producers have stirred up is an examination of the reasons why we believe the ads should or shouldn't be on TV...and perhaps a new look at reasons why beer and wine ads might also be restricted... to reduce the influence of the drug on our youth. If you're interested in a transcript of this show, visit the National Emergency Medicine Association home page at :
....I'm Steve Girard for The Heart of the Matter.