“Working together, we’ve made enormous progress in reducing drunk driving in America,” said President Clinton in a radio address last fall. “Last year, the number of people killed in alcohol-related crashes hit a record low; and young people killed in alcohol-related crashes fell to the lowest rate ever recorded.”
The latest data available from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) shows that alcohol-related fatalities in car crashes declined by 33% in the 10-year period between 1988 and 1998.
Meanwhile, according to a 1999 survey by the Department of Health & Human Services, the percentage of teenagers, ages 12 to 17, who reported having had a drink in the previous month was 45% lower in 1998 than it was in 1982.
But, strangely, not everyone seems to have heard this news. A recent survey by the National Beer Wholesalers Association showed that the majority of respondents thought there were more drunk drivers on the road and more underage drinking going on than ever before.
“One of the things we have to focus on is getting the message out that things are getting better,” said Jeff Becker, president of the Beer Institute, a trade association for the American brewing industry. “This has been a tremendous public-health success.”
Still, in a speech to the National Licensed Beverage Association in January, Peter Coors, president and ceo of Coors, said, “We’re far from out of the woods, and I would argue that there may never be an end to this fight — that constant vigilance and action to discourage irresponsible consumption of beer, wine and spirits are an integral part of the business.”
Beverage alcohol suppliers and their trade associations have taken responsible consumption education, research and legislation very seriously — and have done so for many years. For example, the Century Council, a national, not-for-profit organization funded by America’s leading distillers, has spent over $100 million to combat alcohol abuse in the eight years of its existence. Individually, suppliers have also traditionally educated their consumers about responsible consumption. As early as 1937, for example, Seagram ran an ad that proclaimed, “Drinking and driving do not mix.” And last September, Anheuser-Busch announced that it was nearly tripling its investment in efforts to combat alcohol abuse. Its new advertising campaign will have a $40 million media budget. “Rather than declare victory and stop,” said Francine Katz, vice president of consumer affairs at the brewing company, “it’s time to recognize what works and do more.”
So, what does work?
When it comes to underage drinking, on the one hand, the situation is improving. According to the NHTSA, fatalities in crashes involving drunk teenagers declined by 65% from 1982 to 1998. But, on the other hand, combating underage drinking is a constantly evolving challenge. With each new generation of children, the process has to start all over again.
And as anyone who has ever shopped with a teenager knows, teenage culture changes rapidly. “Drinking has always been a part of the social scene on college campuses,” said John Lawn, chairman and ceo of the Century Council, who has over 20 years of experience in law enforcement, including a five-year stint as the head of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). “In 1800, Harvard celebrated George Washington’s birthday with alcohol on campus. But now, it’s different even from how it was when I was in college.” He pointed out that it is different for younger children as well. “When I was a kid, my friends and I might get hold of some cans of beer at 16,” he said. “Now, kids begin experimenting at a much younger age, at 10.”