Hollings backs beer warnings

Senate Commerce Committee chairman Ernest Hollings (D-S.C.) Thursday endorsed legislation requiring health warnings on beer and wine ads and he promised a quick committee vote on the measure.

“I think it’s a good bill,” said Hollings, although he added that he has “no idea” whether there are enough votes to pass the controversial bill out of committee. Hollings’ remarks came after a hearing where several Republicans signaled opposition to the bill and where broadcasters and brewers indicated a willingness to negotiate less draconian legislation.

The legislation, offered by Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.), has gained momentum in recent weeks, since Thurmond’s 22-year-old daughter was killed April 15 by a drunken driver. Sen. Paul Simon (D-Ill.) said Thurmond’s daughter’s death has “changed the atmosphere” surrounding legislation that has been in committee in recent years.

Simon said it would be “a great tribute” to Thurmond if the bill becomes law.

Details of the legislation call for the insertion of a series of rotating health warnings at the end of each alcohol commercial notifying consumers of the dangers posed by drinking. The warnings would also be affixed to print advertising.

Thurmond said the intent of the bill is not to eliminate beer and wine ads. However, he said, “If they didn’t advertise, it would be better still.”

Speaking in support of the measure was Rep. Joe Kennedy (D-Mass.), who has sponsored identical legislation in the House. Kennedy said, “There is no killer in this country greater than alcohol abuse.” He said that all the bill’s supporters want is “some slight warning … that there’s a down-side risk” to drinking.

Both Simon and Kennedy stressed they are willing to tinker with alternative proposals.

Opposition to the Thurmond bill came from Sens. John Danforth (R-Mo.), Conrad Burns (R-Mont.) and Trent Lott (R-Miss.). Danforth, whose state is home to mega-brewer Anheuser-Busch, was the lead critic. He pointed out that drinking, as opposed to smoking cigarettes, “is not something that’s inherently bad.”

Danforth’s questioning indicated he may play a key role in fashioning regs that might be more acceptable to broadcasters and brewers.

Testifying in support of the bill was Dean Smith, head basketball coach at the University of North Carolina. Smith lamented that beer is “a gateway drug for the young kids” and that alcohol ads invariably feature “good-looking girls and handsome young men.”

National Assn. of Broadcasters prez Eddie Fritts called the Thurmond bill the “wrong solution to a serious problem.” He claimed there is “no scientific evidence that shows a correlation between alcohol advertising and abuse.”

Moreover, Fritts maintained that passage of the legislation will force brewers and vintners to yank their ads, and that in turn will result in a loss of “hundreds of millions of dollars” for broadcasters. Sports programming — the bulk of which is bankrolled by beer ads — will migrate to cable TV, Fritts claimed.

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