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Alcohol deaths: sharing the blame.

Alcohol Deaths: Sharing the Blame

Beer, wine, and liquor--despite the slick ads that link drinking to happiness and success--contribute to approximately 100,000 deaths each year, according to conservative government estimates.

The blame for alcohol-related fatalities is usually put squarely and solely on the shoulders of those who hoist the bottle to their lips. But it's not unreasonable to ascribe at least some measure of responsibility to the companies that encourage drinking, profit from drinking, and know that half of all they produce is consumed by the ten percent of drinkers who have serious alcohol problems.

If the harm done by alcohol is roughly proportional to the amount of alcohol a company sells--a good approximation--then the five biggest brewers share responsibility for almost half of all drunk-driving fatalities, cirrhotic livers, and other alcohol-related problems and deaths.

Anheuser-Busch single-handedly accounts for 23 percent of all the alcohol Americans consume. Its products (including Budweiser, Bud Light, and Michelob) are probably a factor in over 22,000 deaths a year. Incidentally, Anheuser-Busch spent more than $600 million in 1987 encouraging people to drink its brews.

Miller Brewing Co., a division of Philip Morris, whose cigarettes kill tens of thousands each year, is next in line. Its High Life, Lite, and other brands are probably related to 11,000 deaths. The death tolls attributable to Stroh and Heileman are about 6,000 and 5,000, respectively.

Liquor and wine producers also do their part to fuel America's alcohol habit. Seagram and Heublein, the country's two largest liquor companies (they also sell wine), each provides over four percent of our nation's alcohol, and together are probably responsible for about 9,000 deaths each year.

E. & J. Gallo, the nation's largest vintner, markets table wines and Bartles & Jaymes wine coolers. It also quietly peddles (no TV commercials here) such cheap skid-row wines as Night Train Express and Thunderbird. Gallo accounts for three percent of alcohol sales, and potentially that same proportion of deaths.

Of course, no one expects booze producers to yank their products from liquor-store shelves. But they could assume, voluntarily or otherwise, a larger portion of the costs of alcohol abuse and alcoholism than they now bear.

Beverage producers, who use magazines, billboards, and the airwaves to entice us to drink potentially addictive products, could demonstrate their social responsibility by sponsoring treatment and prevention programs. For starters, they could contribute $2 billion a year (which is about what they spend on advertising) to finance treatment of chronic alcoholics, teen education programs, and special classes for children born with alcohol-related mental retardation...not to mention the funerals of persons killed by drunk drivers.

In other words, the alcohol industry could kindle a few of those thousand points of light the Bush administration is championing. If the booze barons don't want regulatory government on their backs, then they should take the lead in curbing America's number-one drug problem. And if they don't do it voluntarily, lawsuits might force them to.

Several product-liability suits which charge that alcohol caused birth defects, pancreatitis, and cirrhosis are already in the courts. If any succeed, the trickle of suits could become a torrent, with companies becoming little more than cash-cows to pay litigants, a la Johns-Manville, the besieged asbestos manufacturer.

But litigation takes years, and people are suffering now. Absent voluntary corporate action, the simplest, quickest way to reimburse society for the devastation wrought by alcohol is through taxes.

State and federal excise taxes on alcoholic beverages raise $13 billion a year. That's just one-tenth the social costs associated with alcohol--a staggering $135 billion, or about $1.25 for every can of beer, glass of wine, or shot of whiskey consumed.

Two dozen health and civic organizations, from the National Council on Alcoholism to the American Academy of Family Physicians, are urging Congress to raise alcohol taxes sharply. That call has been echoed by dozens of prominent economists, the CEOs of 27 Fortune-1000 corporations, and, according to polls, three-fourths of American adults.

Last December, the Surgeon General's Workshop on Drunk Driving concluded that raising taxes "could have the largest long-term effect of all policy and program options available to reduce alcohol-impaired driving."

Higher excise taxes--which industry strenuously opposes--could generate $15 billion a year in new revenues. Some of that money could do what the beverage companies won't: finance desperately needed alcoholism prevention, research, and treatment programs.

But raising taxes would start to pay off even sooner, since increased beverage prices lead to reduced consumption and fewer alcohol problems.

Hiking taxes means fewer alcohol problems plus much-needed revenues, coupled with reduced alcohol sales and profits. That's a trade-off most people can live with.

Beverage industry officials, too, need to contemplate their responsibility for creating a safer and more sober world.

They've got to choose: take meaningful voluntary actions, or accept the lawsuits and taxes that will force them to compensate society for the harm caused by their companies' products.
COPYRIGHT 1989 Center for Science in the Public Interest
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Title Annotation:alcohol-related deaths
Author:Jacobson, Michael F.
Publication:Nutrition Action Healthletter
Date:Apr 1, 1989
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