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November 1998
Volume 16, Number 11

War on Booze
by Thomas J. DiLorenzo

The coalition of government bureaucrats, politicians, trial lawyers, and "political activists" who have orchestrated the demonization of "Big Tobacco" are about to wage a similar smear campaign against what the pressure group Common Cause has labeled "Big Booze." The beer, wine, and liquor industries will be demonized; dramatically higher taxes will be called for; and unconstitutional bans and restrictions on commercial advertising will be vigorously lobbied for. This was the political modus operandi of the anti-smoking movement, and it will now be carried over to other industries.

The federal government already stifles free commercial speech in what it considers to be "politically-incorrect" industries, and such efforts are sure to accelerate. Ominously, the federal agency responsible for regulating alcoholic beverage labels is the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (BATF), of Waco fame.

Ben Lieberman of the Competitive Enterprise Institute has found more than 100 peer-reviewed studies in the New England Journal of Medicine, the Journal of the American Medical Association, the British Medical Journal, and elsewhere that establish a connection between moderate alcohol consumption and less heart disease and longer life.

Even the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Dietary Guidelines for Americans state that "current evidence suggests that moderate drinking is associated with a lower risk for coronary heart disease;" and Dr. Serge Renaud of the Lyons Center in France has concluded that the reason the French, with their high-fat diet, have dramatically lower rates of cardiovascular disease than Americans is because "there is no other drug that's been so efficient [in preventing heart disease] as a moderate intake of alcohol." The French, of course, are the world's greatest wine lovers.

Although alcoholic beverage manufacturers are required by the BATF to state that alcohol consumption may be a health hazard to pregnant women, they are not permitted to cite conflicting research, such as that conducted by Harvard Medical School's Dr. Jack Mendelson, which concludes that "some doses of alcohol, low or moderate, may improve the probability for healthy pregnancies and healthy offspring."

The BATF has not yet incinerated any family-run wineries or wiped out any brewery employees and their children with tanks, machine-gun fire, and poison gas. But it so zealously stamps out any information made public about the health benefits of moderate drinking that it ordered a tiny vineyard in Ventura, California--Leeward Winery--to recall a newsletter that mentioned a CBS 60 Minutes segment that discussed the above-mentioned scientific evidence of the health benefits of moderate drinking.

When Seagrams abandoned a 48-year policy of not advertising on television in 1996, Congressman Joseph Kennedy (D-MA), whose grandfather was one of the most notorious Mafia-connected bootleggers in the 1920s, introduced legislation to ban liquor ads on television. The ever sober and saintly Bill Clinton urged the company in his weekly radio address to "get back to the ban" and "pull those ads."

These neo-prohibitionists apparently believe that American citizens are more or less mindless morons who cannot be exposed to a liquor ad on a billboard without becoming violent alcoholics. For example, after the BATF actually approved the "Crazy Horse" label for a brand of malt liquor (named after the famous Sioux Indian warrior), Congressman Kennedy demanded that the product be pulled from the market; U.S. Surgeon General Antonia Novello forecast at a congressional hearing that the Kevin Costner movie Dances with Wolves would incite teenagers to go on drinking binges if they were merely to see the "Crazy Horse" label; and Congressman Frank Wolf (R-VA) offered an amendment to bar breweries from naming their products after dead people--a move that mortified the owners of the Boston Brewing Company, brewers of Samuel Adams beer. Congress watered down Wolf's amendment so that it would only ban the use of the name "Crazy Horse."

The neo-prohibitionists assert over and over that liquor ads cause people to take up drinking, and on that basis they demand that the ads be banned. In reality, there is a vast body of economic research that shows the predominant effect of advertising is to cause consumers to shift brands, not to increase overall consumption. But even if this were not the case, in a free society entrepreneurs should be free to bring their products to the public's attention and to urge consumers to try it out. So what if it increases alcohol consumption! As the above-mentioned medical literature shows, the likely result would be an enhancement of health.

Government's attack on commercial speech is not just an assault on free speech but on property rights and freedom of contract--the keystones of capitalism. For as Murray Rothbard presciently noted in The Ethics of Liberty, Americans do not have a "right to freedom of speech" per se but, rather, a right to write, publish, or broadcast their views by using their own property or by contracting with others. With property rights so established, people are free to expose their views to whomever wants to hear them (as long as others are free to ignore the message). Thus, the political crusades on tobacco and alcohol advertising are really assaults on the free-enterprise system itself.

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Thomas J. DiLorenzo is professor of economics at Loyola College and an adjunct scholar of the Mises Institute.


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