Warning Labels and Alcohol Ads: Senate Holds Hearings on the Alcohol Beverage Advertising Act

Article excerpt

Congress once again is considering legislation that would require warning labels to accompany print and broadcast advertising for alcoholic beverages.

Citing the need to protect consumers--particularly youths and pregnant women--Senators Richard Bryan (D-Nev.), Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), Alaert Gore Jr. (D-Tenn.) and Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.) were among those who spoke in favor of the Alcohol Beverage Advertising Act (S.664), which would call for a series of five rotating warning labels for alcoholic beverage ads, similar to those that run with tobacco ads.

Since alcoholic beverages are also advertised on television and radio--which tobacco is not--vocal and on-screen warnings would follow each ad.

Also testifying before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation's Consumer Subcommittee were Representatives Joseph P. Kennedy III (D-Mass.) and John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.), who are behind similar legislation in the House.

"Why are these warnings needed? There are many reasons," said Sen. Thurmond, the sponsor of the bill.

"... (W)arnings represent one important step in educating the consumer on the potential hazards of alcohol consumption," he stated.

"Similar to cigarette warning labels and the labels on alcoholic beverage containers, the warnings in advertisements do not create any legal restriction or penalty to those who do not heed the warnings. They merely provide cautionary notice that consumption of the product may entail serious consequences in certain situations."

In addition, Sen. Thurmond maintained that "alcohol advertising, especially in the broadcast media, represents the single greatest source of alcohol education for Americans. According to a 1990 study of 10-to 13-year-olds funded by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, there is a relationship between exposure and attention to beer advertising, and expectations to drink as a result."

Broadcast and advertising groups, however, say that labeling requirement would in effect lead to the end of such ads on the air.

"To require warning labels to be a part of alcohol ads will simply drive those ads off the air without achieving the goal of reducing alcohol abuse in America," according to Wayne Vriesman, vice president/radio group, Tribune Broadcasting Co., who testified on behalf of the National Association of Broadcasters.

Vriesman charged that the causal relationship between alcoholic beverage advertising and abuse of the product has not been established.

"Why people abuse alcohol is a complicated question which does not lend itself to easy answers," he maintained. "Restraints or restrictions on advertising will do little or nothing to help us fight the causes or find solutions for alcohol abuse."

Further, Vriesman charged, adding the warnings to already limited-time broadcast ads, which specifically are designed to convey only single messages, "will only confuse the audience, and will end up rendering both the product message and the health warning ineffective."

Public service ads against alcohol abuse currently being run by many of the alcohol beverage companies and others are much more effective, he added.

Another focus of the debate was the constitutionality of such a labeling requirement.

"The issue is of constitutional dimensions because the Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled that freedom from government-compelled speech is an integral part of the First Amendment," explained New York University School of Law Professor Burt Neuborne.

"Under existing Supreme Court precedent, I believe that only one exception exists to the First Amendment ban on government-compelled speech," he explained. "Where a given communication would itself be false or misleading in the absence of additional information, either because it contains affirmative misstatements, or because it omits a material fact needed to permit informed choice, government is empowered to compel additional disclosure needed to correct the otherwise deceptive message . …