Booze Barriers

Should we also regulate ads for cars, Viagra, and life insurance?


It's doubtful that gin, rum, vodka, whiskey or tequila will replace champagne as the preferred beverage of the new year, no matter how many commercials for distilled spirits appear on NBC. But the network's recent decision to carry such ads revives an old controversy about the evils of liquor as compared to those of wine and beer.

For some critics of NBC's decision, this distinction is not important. The American Medical Association, for example, wants to ban all advertising of alcoholic beverages—not just for liquor, and not just on TV.

The AMA's position seems to be that adult products should be advertised in a manner visible only to adults. If consistently applied, this principle would require an ambitious program of censorship covering ads for a wide range of products and services, including cars, casinos, Viagra and life insurance.

But not everyone who objects to TV ads for scotch or brandy is equally upset about commercials for Budweiser or Woodbridge Chardonnay. In some quarters, there is still a lingering sense that liquor is a greater menace.

This feeling underlay the liquor industry's longstanding policy against advertising on TV as well as the networks' policy against running liquor ads. That reticence faded largely because government agencies and health organizations such as the AMA kept emphasizing that one form of alcohol is just as bad as the next.

Nowadays it's widely recognized that a glass of wine, a bottle of beer and a cocktail all contain roughly the same amount of alcohol. In this light, singling out liquor for special restrictions seems unreasonable—especially to manufacturers of distilled spirits, who in recent decades have lost market share to beer and wine.

Brewers and vintners, meanwhile, would like to keep their advantage on TV. They also worry that breaking the taboo against broadcast ads for liquor will lead to a backlash against all alcoholic beverages.

The history of the temperance movement seems to provide support for that concern. When temperance activists began to treat all alcoholic beverages the same, they also abandoned moderation in favor of abstinence, a shift that ultimately led to Prohibition.

Philadelphia physician Benjamin Rush, the temperance movement's intellectual father, warned that distilled spirits led to ruin. But he was confident that naturally fermented beverages such as beer, cider and wine could be consumed in moderation.

"Fermented liquors contain so little spirit, and that so intimately combined with other matters, that they can seldom be drunken in sufficient quantities to produce intoxication, and its subsequent effects, without exciting a disrelish to their taste, or pain, from their distending the stomach," he wrote in 1784. "They are, moreover, when taken in a moderate quantity, generally innocent, and often have a friendly influence upon health and life."

Presbyterian minister Lyman Beecher likewise was originally alarmed about distilled spirits, the focus of his 1826 collection of sermons on intemperance. But he added an important note to subsequent editions of the book: "When the following discourses were written, alcohol in the form of ardent spirits … was the most common intoxicating beverage in use. But as the poison in every form is the same, the argument against this form applies alike to every form."

Since Beecher had nothing but contempt for the notion of prudent liquor consumption, this clarification pointed the way to complete abstinence, which soon became the temperance movement's official goal. Concluding that their fellow citizens would never comply voluntarily, anti-alcohol crusaders resorted to coercion, beginning with the first state prohibition law in 1851 and culminating in ratification of the 18th Amendment in 1919.

Given this history, it's not surprising that beer and wine makers would be tempted to deny that "the poison in every form is the same," especially since that's the position of neoprohibitionist groups like the AMA. But the political struggles that preceded Prohibition suggest a different lesson.

Manufacturers of alcoholic beverages were rarely united in their reaction to attacks on drinking. Brewers hoped to win a separate peace, while vintners resented comparisons between their time-honored, biblically endorsed product and the artificial, concentrated beverages made by distillers.

Instead of consistently defending moderation, the people whose livelihoods were ultimately banned by the Volstead Act tried to win points with the public and the politicians at the expense of their competitors. Today, facing opponents who seek to silence them, if not put them out of business, their successors risk making the same mistake.