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Anti-alcohol crusader touts growing support

Van Komen says Busch wraps itself in Olympic flag

George Van Komen is used to big-business beer depicting him as a lone wolf howling in the wilderness against alcohol's buddy-buddy relationship with sports.

He believes he represents a worldwide chorus.

"We don't stand alone anymore," Van Komen, director of the Alcohol Policy Coalition, said before a Thursday morning press conference at the Utah Medical Association.

"Alcohol in sports promotion is not just an issue for one teetotaler in Utah. It's international, and there's an enormous groundswell for our efforts, mobilizing worldwide," said Van Komen, a Salt Lake physician whose Utah-based coalition wants to ban 2002 Olympics alcohol sponsorship.

Van Komen has targeted his pitch at Anheuser-Busch Companies Inc. as a heavy-hitter Olympic sponsor. That has prompted a series of sparring responses from the St. Louis-based beer giant.

One, a letter to the editor to the Deseret News last April by John T. Kaestner, Busch senior group director/consumer awareness and education, said, "While most of us continue to work together to ensure that Salt Lake City, the state of Utah and the United States will host the best-ever Winter Olympic Games in 2002, a local anti-alcohol group continues to stand alone in its desire to ban Anheuser-Busch's participation as a sponsor of the Olympics."

Van Komen said Thursday morning, "That letter was a great way to turn on a coalition. I always knew I wasn't alone, but it has been fun firming up the backing and gathering supporting data.

"Busch has very carefully wrapped the Olympic flag around that beer bottle. We hope to put a stop to it," said Van Komen, adding he'd gathered 10,000 signatures to a petition opposing alcohol in sports promotion.

Indicating broadening support, Van Komen introduced George A. Hacker, founding director of the Alcohol Policies Project, part of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a 30-year-old health advocacy group based in Washington, D.C.

"The alcohol industry's cozy relationship with sports and the effect it has on young people is devastating," Hacker said. "Alcohol is our society's most destructive drug."

In a statement from St. Louis, Francine I. Katz, Busch vice-president, consumer affairs, said, "Anheuser-Busch has been a proud sponsor of the Olympics since 1984. There is no company that is more committed to the responsible consumption of alcohol than Anheuser-Busch."

Katz cited more than $350 million spent by Busch since 1982 in the development of more than two dozen community-based programs to promote responsible drinking and fight alcohol abuse, including drunken driving and underage drinking. "The bottom line is that we simply have a differences of opinion when it comes to alcohol and its role in society. We respect Dr. Van Komen's beliefs and those of others who choose to abstain from drinking, and we ask that abstainers extend that same respect to the world's responsible drinkers."

Hacker touted a study commissioned by the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention division of the Department of Justice. It showed, he said, that underage alcohol use cost the nation $58.4 billion annually, compared to estimated health costs of $50 billion annually from tobacco use.

"The alcohol industry says it supports this, it supports that, blah-blah-blah. Well, if I were in Anheuser-Busch's shoes and I saw the litigation facing the tobacco industry, I'd be mounting a huge public-relations campaign, too," Hacker said.

However, Katz said, "While Mr. Hacker has been crusading against beer advertising for more than a decade, it's important to note that teen drinking has declined 47 percent and teen drunk-driving has plummeted 64 percent since 1982. These are the lowest levels since government record-keeping began."

Hacker said research from a World Health Organization Conference on Young People and Alcohol this February in Stockholm showed 57,000 persons throughout Europe between the ages of 15-29 died from alcohol-related problems in 1998.

"That accounted for one in four males deaths in that age category," Hacker said.

Hacker decries youth-oriented commercials and pooh-poohs the beer industry's claims of responsible advertising.

"The industry's so-called advertising standards are an absolute joke. You could drive a double-wide beer truck through the holes in their policies," Hacker said.

He added, "They don't sell beer, they sell a lifestyle. Everyone's pretty and handsome and cool and the message is you need to be drinking in order to possess these qualities and have a good time," said Hacker. He added his group had backing from, among others, the American Academy of Pediatrics; National Parent Teachers Association, and the American Medical Association's Division on Alcohol and Other Drugs.

Hacker said France and Austria are among European countries restricting alcohol-related ads at sports venues or sports stars endorsing alcohol.

Katz, though, said, "When it comes to advertising, we likewise disagree with George Hacker. We can turn off every television set in the nation, and we'll have done nothing to combat underage drinking. Parents — not beer commercials — have the greatest influence on their children's lives when it comes to important decisions, such as drinking."

Caroline Shaw, spokesperson for the Salt Lake Organizing Committee, which earlier announced "Budworld," a downtown Olympic enclave for drinking and other social activities, said, "The Olympic Games and U.S. Olympic Committee have had malt beverage sponsorship for many years, and Anheuser-Busch has been very responsible in its advertising. SLOC will comply with all Utah liquor laws. We will act as good hosts, serving beer where Utah law permits.

"Our corporate sponsors are very important to the Olympics. They are why we are able to put on the great Games we're all looking forward to. It's somewhat ironic that Dr. Van Komen thinks there's too much alcohol in our Olympics and our mayor (Rocky Anderson) thinks there's too little. It seems one of those can't-please-all-the-people-all-the-time things."