Dossier D.C.: Under The Influence

It is fascinating to watch Washington tobacco marketers and lobbyists depicted as vampires in direct sunlight.
What’s ironic is that as tobacco legislation careened out of control and tobacco companies got shut out of the process, alcohol lobbyists believe they’ve won their biggest, most controversial victory to date. In fact, some alcohol lobbyists have been acting like Anne Rice’s Lestat after a kill.
Their cause for celebration? The measure for a uniform, national .08 blood alcohol concentration (BAC) drunk-driving code failed in Congress a few weeks ago. Alcohol lobbyists, who make substantial campaign contributions, worked hard to kill it. The $227 billion transportation bill has been sent for the president’s signature–without the drunk-driving provision. By the time you read this he will have signed it.
Upon closer inspection, however, this victory is a double-edged sword for alcohol lobbyists. Some, such as the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States (DISCUS) and The Beer Institute, chose to stay in the shadows of this fight due to their own uneasy feelings, sources say. The .08 war was waged by lobbyists who represent wholesalers and retailers, a group that has watched sales of wine, beer and alcohol drop in recent years.
“This was a fascinating fight,” says John Doyle, director of public affairs for the American Beverage Institute. “At first, I thought it was going to be tough, but it turned into a huge victory. If nothing else, we got people trying to determine what drunk driving is all about.”
Doyle argues that about 80 percent of alcohol-related fatalities are caused by “recalcitrant” alcoholics who flout BAC laws. The remainder, he says, are all over the map, so .08 isn’t the solution.
But other alcohol lobbyists, who spoke anonymously, regret the fight. “I think it was ludicrous the way they went after it,” says one lobbyist. “It got very personal in the end. There was a lot of chest-thumping. I have to work with [Mothers Against Drunk Driving].”
MADD, which led the .08 battle, was upset by the outcome. “This fight shows the realities of the power of the alcohol lobby, especially when you look at the alcohol PAC money going to the Republican leadership,” says Karolyn Nunnallee, the national president of MADD. “It should be sickening to every American and a sad day for our country–and I’m a Republican.”
But Sandy Golden, president of the Campaign for Alcohol-Free Kids in Clearwater Beach, Fla., called the .08 fight a waste of time: “Florida has .08 and the alcohol-related death rate is going up. The trucking industry standard is no alcohol. Most of the civilized countries are at .05.” Industry lobbyists fear that activists have zero tolerance for any combination of drinking and driving.
Despite political differences, all lobbyists agree with David Rehr, executive vice president/government relations for the National Beer Wholesalers Association of Alexandria, Va., that “alcohol advertising is the next fight.”
Rehr is renowned in the corridors of power, having created the theme “Family businesses distributing America’s beverage,” a line gracing every letter sent to every member of Congress. Sens. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) and Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.), who lost the .08 fight, will examine other anti-alcohol measures–from ad-tax deductibility to regulating alcohol ads.
For his part, Rehr says his role in killing a measure that would toughen drunk-driving laws was a public relations coup for alcohol–and he’s right in the short term. “The federal mandate would have blackmailed the states into using .08 as the standard,” Rehr says, noting that many states now use a .10 standard.
Rehr and his American Beverage Institute colleagues helped turn the issue into a fight over Big Brother, activist government, as opposed to a fight over whether a 170-pound man who consumes four drinks in an hour on an empty stomach (one definition of .08) should be steering 2,000 pounds of metal. A 120-pound woman who has two glasses of wine in two hours could also be at the .08 level, lobbyists add.
“The .08 fight energized the beer people,” says Rehr, who has been lauded in Republican circles for tightening and polishing an anti-government, pro-business stance. He has an answer for any topic relating to alcohol, especially beer.
“Part of my strategy is that I’m very proud of what we do and distribute. The .08 standard is not the solution to the problem of drunk driving,” Rehr says. He favors graduated sentencing of drunk drivers as part of the answer.
Still, it may turn out to be bad politics in the long run for alcohol lobbyists to get too entrenched in the drunk-driving debate. They’ve made a lot of enemies on the Hill, some of whom are eager to attack their ads. Public opinion may even turn against them the way it did with tobacco lobbyists.
DISCUS, which represents producers and marketers of distilled spirits, did not enter the .08 fray. “Historically, we have not gotten involved in the BAC fight,” says spokesperson Lisa Hawkins. What DISCUS is doing now is looking for an ad agency to help the organization polish the image of hard liquor. A lobbyist group hiring someone to market them?
It’s true, and it’s happening more and more in the Beltway. After all, what little success tobacco lobbyists had in depicting the tobacco bill as a big government tax imbroglio was due to advertising.
DISCUS has hired the Advertising Agency Register in New York to help in the selection of a shop for its $2-6 million account, which may increase to $12 million after the first year.
“We’re looking at better ways to communicate information about distilled spirits to responsible adults who consume beverage alcohol,” says Hawkins. “The messages have not been developed, and we have not chosen media as of yet.” Sources close to DISCUS, however, say the group may try and stop declining sales with a television image initiative.
Such a campaign is sure to rankle Bill Kennard, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission. Kennard has told reporters that he would revisit the alcohol advertising inquiry only if a flurry of hard-liquor ads airs on television. The Washington-based Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) is actively lobbying the FCC and the Federal Trade Commission to regulate these ads.
“It’s been two years since DISCUS changed its code [allowing advertising] and there has been no public outcry in the areas where these ads have aired,” says Hawkins. “The public understands that alcohol should be treated the same as wine and beer. All we have asked for is a level playing field.”
Still, the CSPI is committed to making alcohol ad regulation a visible and urgent battle. “We have called upon the FCC to open a notice of inquiry that would examine a wide range of issues relating to the advertising of alcoholic beverages in the broadcast media,” says George Hacker, director of CSPI’s alcohol policies project.
“We are also looking for an open public forum for MADD and CSPI to air our concerns about advertising that targets underage persons. It would require alcohol beverage companies to tell people why these cute animals [Budweiser’s lizards and frogs] don’t appeal to their children,” adds Hacker.
Sources at the FCC say such a forum is unlikely this year because Congress has threatened the agency’s funding if it pursues alcohol ads without congressional approval. (Some congressional aides say there will be a few alcohol-related bills this fall.) Federal Trade Commission sources add that more alcohol ads are likely to come under review.
Thus far, alcohol has ducked much of the social and political fire being aimed at tobacco and illegal drugs. What’s the realpolitik difference between the vices? “The Medellin Cartel doesn’t send campaign contributions to Congress, at least not that we know of,” says Hacker.
Because alcohol-related industries are so generous on the Hill, observers suspect the alcohol fight will be the longest and hardest vice battle ever.