Who's Next?

Copyright 1998 Dow Jone & Co., Inc.
Wall Street Journal (April 22, 1998)

Beer lovers of America, better drink up. The same political class that is now sucking $516 billion from Big Tobacco is already scanning the horizon for its next rich business target. "Big Booze" is being nominated. Congratulations on being chosen.

Or so we infer from the latest work by Common Cause, which walks point for the liberal/public health/Naderite/trial lawyer political combine. It has just published "Under the Influence: Congress Backs Down to Big Booze," which is not exactly a paean to Clydesdales tromping through snow. It's more like a call to release the hounds of political hell.

Or maybe Big Booze will get lucky and be put in line behind Big Mac. "To me, there is no difference between Ronald McDonald and Joe Camel," Kelly Brownell, a psychologist who directs something called the Yale University Center for Eating and Weight Disorders, told the Boston Herald last week. "Are we going to have legislation tomorrow? No. But we have to start thinking about this in a more militant way."

You know what that means. First, public health groups will determine that hamburgers cause cancer and heart disease. The trial lawyers will begin class actions on behalf of adults who blame their illnesses on years of being manipulated by special sauce into eating hamburger. The state attorneys general will claim they should be compensated for health-care costs related to french fries. Before you know it, Ronald McDonald is a pariah for luring kids into lives of addiction to fat and cholesterol.

If that sounds absurdist, keep in mind that cigarettes were once considered a lot like Big Macs--an unhealthy indulgence, but basically a matter of individual choice. These columns have never defended the tobacco companies, and we believe they've been their own worst enemy. But the way politicians are now devouring them like Serengeti prey needs to be understood as an awful precedent. Someone will be next.

Common Cause is already starting the next campaign: First come up with a neat pejorative like "Big Booze." Then claim the industry's political donations "undermine public safety." Common Cause President Ann McBride avers, with her usual restraint, that "By caving in to the alcohol lobby, Congress is guilty of a DUI--deciding under the influence--the influence of more than $26 million in campaign contributions."

The political clincher is to imply the industry is killing kids. The industry is accused of this because it opposes the lower national drunk standard favored by Mothers Against Drunk Driving. (Never mind that traffic laws have almost always been set by the 50 states.) Look for President Clinton and Democrats to pick up the Common Cause refrain going into the fall elections.

Both Republicans and business have so far watched tobacco's disemboweling with detachment, like the wildebeest who escaped the hyenas. But maybe they should think again. In politics, a strategy is imitated as long as it succeeds. In "Big Booze," the public health mob has more and richer targets even than tobacco; think of the penance taxes to be had from Seagram, Anheuser-Busch, Gallo, Coors, Brown-Forman. The politicians will all drink to that.

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