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Liquor probe: don't let distillers call the tune

President Carter has signed legislation creating a national commission to study the impact of liquor consumption on US society. To be called the National Commission on Alcoholism and Other Alcohol-Related Problems, the panel of four senators, four representatives, and 11 public members will have a broad mandate to delve into the vast array of problems -- social, health, and otherwise -- which are increasingly seen as direct spinoffs of Americans' drinking habits and their pervasive reliance on alcohol as a social crutch.

The long list of topics Congress has set out for the commission to probe hints at the extent of liquor's destructive influence on a largely unsuspecting drinking public. Public awareness campaigns have helped alert many Americans to the highway dangers involved in drinking and driving. But federal efforts to cope with alcohol addiction have focused primarily on treatment of alcoholics rather than on prevention, thereby allowing much of the population to remain oblivious to liquor's other serious consequences. It is significant, then, that the new national commission will be looking into alcohol's relation to family violence and crime, its impact on minority groups, including American Indians and Alaskan Natives, and on the elderly, women, and the handicapped. It will also be charged with evaluating the effectiveness of laws and regulations aimed at controling sales to minors.

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The still-to-be-appointed national commission could prove an important first step toward formulating a long overdue, effective national policy on alcoholism and alcohol related problems -- but only if President Carter does not fall into the trap of allowing the influential liquor industry to dominate the panel. A previous federal task force on alcohol in 1977 ran into this problem. Critics charge that inclusion of liquor industry representatives on the panel led the group to issue recommendations so watered down that they were eventually shelved by the President as virtually meaningless. In choosing the 11 "public members" of the new commission, President Carter needs to make certain that his appointees are dedicated solely to protecting the public and are completely free of conflicts of interest.

The powerful liquor industry lobby, for instance, has had repeated success in derailing congressional proposals for attaching health warnings to liquor labels , similar to those currently required for cigarettes. Moreover, the American Council on Alcohol Problems and other groups outside government have run into similar resistance in trying to get the Federal Trade Commission, under its broad mandate to ensure "truth in advertising," to require health warnings in liquor advertisements.

Health warnings, of course, are not the ultimate answer. This is at root a moral problem. Final responsibility for rejecting liquor's illusive come-on must lie with the individual, and family and church should assume the primary role in exposing liquor's dangers. But a government-sponsored, broad-based education campaign exposing liquor's destructiveness could help more of the public market better-informed decisions. It is to be hoped that the New National Commission on Alcoholism and Other Alcohol-Related Problems will give this as well as all other approaches to curbing the liquor problem a full and open hearing.


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