of George A. Hacker
Director, Alcohol Policies
June 15, 2000
Alcohol Money Calls the Shots on Capitol Hill
The Center for Science in the Public Interest applauds Common Cause for calling public attention to one of the most shameful features of political campaigning. We are delighted to join with Common Cause and others to sound an alarm about the corrupting influence of money in politics; money that robs Congress of the will to protect public health and safety over the venal interests of industries that sell addiction and death.
Alcohol, tobacco, gambling, and gun money floods Congressional campaign coffers. The clear intent of the money is to stifle or derail policy initiatives that could hurt the corporate bottom line. In my 15 years working on alcohol policies in Washington, I've seen the political weight of the alcoholic-beverage industries tip the scales on alcohol-policy issues, including excise taxes, television advertising, ingredient labeling, public subsidies for the wine industry, and efforts to rationalize low standards for impaired driving.
In large measure, alcohol-industry investments have paid off. Legislation has been deferred or defeated, issues have been forgotten or deep-sixed for the convenience of alcohol contributors. For example, excise taxes on beer went up in 1991, for the first and only time since Harry Truman's presidency. As a result, the federal beer tax -- about a nickel on a $3.00 bottle of Sam Adams or a 12-oz can of Budweiser -- is now worth two-thirds less, in real dollars, than it was in 1951. This low taxation allows beer to be sold at soft-drink prices -- and often cheaper than juice and bottled water -- making it even more attractive to high-risk young people and resulting in excessive alcohol-related deaths on the highways, crime on our streets, havoc in our schools, and higher rates of venereal disease among our children. That's the price we pay for a corrupt political system that allows money to talk and lets public health concerns take a walk. We need a change from this "business as usual" in campaign finance.
Last July, the alcoholic-beverage industry flexed its muscles in the House Appropriations Committee to kill a proposed media campaign to reduce alcohol use among young people. We spend $1 billion on a media campaign to fight illicit drug use and the use of inhalants by youth, and not a penny of federal money for effective prevention messages to combat the use of America's -- and teens' -- most used and most devastating drug, alcohol. Members of that committee received some $300,000 in political contributions from alcoholic-beverage sources during the previous election cycle -- some $4,829 each. The leader of efforts to block the alcohol-prevention media campaign, Representative Anne Northup (R-KY), herself received $38,264, about 13% of all alcohol-related contributions to the 61-member Appropriations Committee.
Sadly, national efforts to reduce underage drinking, to save lives, and to head off potential addiction and drug abuse by young people who begin to drink once again fell victim to alcohol politics and political influence. When will we have sacrificed too much? The price is already far too high.
*To view the Common Cause report "Paying the Price: How Tobacco, Gun, Gambling, and Alcohol Interests Block Common Sense Solutions to Some of the Nations Most Urgent Problems" click here.