In an effort to reduce the 25,000 deaths in America each year from drunken driving, Surgeon General C. Everett Koop released a federal report this week calling for a vigorous, all-out attack on alcohol consumption.
The campaign, much of it directed at young people, makes solid sense.It recommends that the price of alcoholic beverages be raised through excise taxes; that the allowable blood alcohol levels for drinking motorists be lowered; that beer sponsorships of rock concerts, athletic events and other youth-oriented activities be ended; that more anti-drinking public service announcements be carried on radio and television, and that warning notices be displayed whenever beer or wine commercials are shown on TV.
The report does not represent Koop's views alone but is the product of a conference of 110 experts from five federal government departments. The recommendations will be sent to Congress and state and local governments.
This kind of high-level federal report urging more restrictions on alcoholic beverages is in sharp contrast to the efforts by some in Utah who seek to make alcohol easier to acquire and consume.
In fact, the tide of alcohol consumption is running the other way. Per capita use of alcohol has been falling since 1975 and per capita use of beer and wine has been declining for the past 10 years.
At the top of the Koop report is a proposal to lower the permissible blood alcohol content for determining if a motorist is legally drunk. The report says levels of .10 should be reduced to .08. Utah law already sets the level at .08. Koop goes further by recommending that the level be reduced to .04 by the year 2000. For those under 21, the legal drinking age, he would set the tolerance level at zero - 0.00.
Those are admittedly tough limits, but if the nation is serious about getting drunken drivers off the road, the best approach is to simply make drinking and driving an illegal mixture. Saying that it is OK to drink and drive to some degree only undercuts efforts to end the practice.
The proposal to raise excise taxes on alcohol, beer and wine is long overdue. Such taxes have been frozen since 1951. Koop noted that a six-pack of beer often sells for less than a six-pack of soda pop.
While the Koop report did not call for a ban on advertising of alcoholic beverages, it did ask for a substantial increase in public service announcements to counteract such advertising. In fact, the suggestion is that pro-health and pro-safety messages should equal the advertising for alcoholic beverages.
That would be a considerable expense, since such advertising now amounts to $2 billion a year. A child between the ages of 2 and 18 will see an estimated 100,000 beer ads on television, or about 17 a day.
Broadcasters oppose the Koop proposals, saying they would interfere with advertising of legal products. However, that defense ignores the fact that distilled spirits and cigarettes are legal products, yet both are banned on TV.
A recent Gallup poll showed that 75 percent of Americans favor a federal law requiring radio and TV stations to provide equal time for public service messages to counter advertising of alcoholic beverages.
The Koop report faces a great many hurdles, but it ought to receive prompt attention in Congress and from state and local governments. The deaths of 25,000 people a year is too high a price to keep paying.