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Liquor Ads Strain for an Audience

SOME years ago, an alcoholic was fired from her job in the Manhattan headquarters of a major distiller. Now recovered and healthy, she often recalls the moment when she was escorted to the door by the company's medical director. ``Without people like me,'' she shouted in a drunken snarl, as heads peered from doors along the office corridor, ``you would have been out of business years ago!'' Her story comes to mind amid the current holiday blitz of liquor advertising. This is the peak sales month for the industry, and it is a real challenge this year. The problem lies not in reaching heavy drinkers, including the estimated 10 million alcoholics. They are a ready market. Indeed, though most people don't recognize it, and the industry would rather not talk about it, they account for most sales of alcoholic beverages.

The messages from billboards, and subway walls, and ads in magazines are aimed at people like me - social drinkers. These are people who enjoy a drink now and then, who often buy a bottle as a holiday gift or to bring to a party. These people - some 90 million Americans - are doing something unusual. They are thinking about their drinking.

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The result is everywhere apparent. Since 1980, there has been a 23 percent drop in liquor consumption, according to the trade newsletter, Impact. Beer consumption is down 7 percent and wine 14 percent. In many circles, sobriety is chic. Sparked by drunk-driving concerns, these trends are growing because of a national health-consciousness reflected by the Surgeon General's new warning on beers, wines, and liquors.

The industry's response? As veteran advertising reporter Isadore Barmash noted recently, liquor sellers are ``fighting harder than ever for sales'' this month, emphasizing ``high-tech and novelty approaches'' in their advertising. Thus, readers of some magazines are encountering four-page ads which, when opened, sing, ``Merry Christmas.'' Smirnoff vodka is reportedly spending its $1-million holiday ad budget on a campaign informing readers of the problems of adult illiteracy.

This occurs at a time when the public is deeply concerned - and confused - about alcohol and personal health. Headline-making studies regularly show links between alcohol use and health problems. In October, a Texas researcher reported a doubling in alcohol abuse among low-income pregnant women treated at Parkland Memorial Hospital in Dallas over the past decade. Most had never heard of fetal alcohol syndrome, he wrote in the journal, Obstetrics and Gynecology. The researcher, Bertis B. Little of the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, told a reporter, ``There's been a poor job of educating low-income women about the dangers of drinking during pregnancy.''

The industry's answer to such matters has been to ignore them. It strongly supports efforts to combat drunk driving and alcoholism. It strongly advocates ``responsible and moderate drinking,'' whatever that is. And it consistently fails to address the concerns of consumers over mounting evidence on the possible negative consequences of drinking.

The country needs a literacy campaign from the alcohol industry - a campaign devoted to alcohol literacy. Such an effort would inform consumers of the health risks associated with alcohol use.

Are the industry's marketers prepared to conduct this educational effort? They may have no choice. The coalition of national health groups that fought for and won passage of federal legislation for the new container warning will not stop there. Government-mandated warnings in advertising cannot be far off.

Thus far, the industry simply dismisses critics as neo-prohibitionists. It would do well to realize that the national sales declines tell a different story. Americans who are drinking less are not against anything. They are not prohibiting anything. They are changing their own behavior, not that of others. They are trying to make informed, healthy choices for themselves and their families. They are part of a profound change in attitudes toward all substances taken into the body.

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To conduct business-as-usual - with bigger and glitzier ads pitched at old familiar themes - in the face of this change is to engage in utterly wishful thinking. Social drinkers are confused and uncertain. They are like the 31-year-old blue-collar worker who said to me recently, ``I have a few beers at the end of the day. Am I harming myself?'' He and millions of others who drink to relax, or simply for enjoyment, want solid, relevant information - not another colorful, three-dimensional greeting of ``Happy New Year.''

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