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

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.

"There have been some very blatant things tobacco advertisers did, such as Joe Camel," Grube says. "In some ways, alcohol advertisers are a little less blatant. But then you think back to Spuds McKenzie, which is at the same level as Joe Camel."

Anti-alcohol advocates say that the beverage industry is stealing a page from the tobacco industry's advertising manual. Budweiser, for example, has introduced cartoon images of ants and frogs in its advertising materials that, Leiber charges, delights kids.

"When you see how these [tobacco and alcohol] products are marketed, there are similarities. The imagery that is being used, the medium and the message seem more and more to be geared to children," she says.

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Advocates on both fronts say they have evidence that kids are receptive to the ads' messages.

In a study published last week, UC San Diego researcher John P. Pierce found that tobacco marketing may be a stronger influence in encouraging adolescents to begin smoking than either peer pressure or living in a family with smokers.

And, in a study published last year, Grube found that awareness of alcohol ads among students in the fifth and sixth grades led to "more favorable beliefs about drinking" that may then predispose them to drink younger.

But Grube cautioned that his study did not show a direct link to underage drinking, and he is reluctant to see his research findings used to establish government policy on advertising.

"I'm very cautious about alcohol ads and its effects on kids," he says. "I think there are subtle influences."

Tobacco and alcohol manufacturers vigorously defend their right to advertise and disagree that their marketing campaigns attract minors.

"There is no solid research that ads are affecting the decision of young people to drink illegally. We find the prime motivators are peer pressure, curiosity, rebellion and the desire to escape problems," says Lawrence Lokman, an assistant vice president with the Century Council in Los Angeles. The nonprofit organization, funded by brewers, vintners, distillers and wholesalers, was established to address the problems of drunk driving and underage drinking.

Tobacco manufacturers, meanwhile, say studies such as Pierce's are distortions.

"Advertising doesn't trigger smoking," says Thomas Lauria, a spokesman for the Tobacco Institute, an industry lobby group. "I find it regrettable that they say ads are twice as influential as parents or peers when every other scientific study has pointed to it being peer pressure. People are saying that if we only ban advertising, the problem is going to go away. But in countries where they have banned ads, it hasn't gone away."

Both industries have designed their own campaigns to discourage youth access. The Century Council and Philip Morris USA, for example, have campaigns to help retailers avoid sales to minors. According to Kirsten Fedewa of the Beer Institute, an industry lobby group in Washington, D.C., brewers have spent $250 million over the last 10 years fighting alcohol abuse.

But, says Dr. Randolph Smoak, a trustee of the American Medical Assn., "If you think the industry doesn't want minors to smoke or drink, then I have some land I'd like to sell you. The truth is that they do market to that segment of the population. We know that." The AMA has long opposed tobacco and alcohol marketing or advertising attractive to youth.

Kayson says alcohol-control activists are realistic about the battle ahead.

"To take on the alcohol industry in the same way would be very difficult," she says of the FDA actions on tobacco and youth.

Nevertheless, activists say they intend to learn from the success of the anti-smoking campaign.

"My experience is that tobacco efforts have already been a springboard to alcohol policy," Leiber says. "They have taught the alcohol field how to talk about the impact of alcohol on health. There is no question that tobacco activists have led the way on that."

Before alcohol activists can hope for the kinds of regulations that have been applied to tobacco, society needs to recognize the dangers of underage drinking, Leiber says.

To raise awareness, Leiber's group will launch the Hands Off Halloween campaign Wednesday to show objection to the use of Halloween images on beer products and the child-oriented free stickers, temporary tattoos and helium balloons distributed as part of the promotions.

And, in Los Angeles, activists are trying to reduce the beer and tobacco billboards near schools and places where children congregate. A 1994 survey by the Community Coalition for Substance Abuse Prevention and Treatment in Los Angeles found that 73% of alcohol and cigarette billboards were within half a mile of schools and that a poor area of South-Central had twice as many of the billboards as an affluent Westside district.

"We need a much higher level of awareness and activity at the community level," Leiber says. "That is part of what moved the tobacco issue to where it is today."

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