Scholar examines the politics of regulations on advertising alcohol and tobacco

December 19, 2007

Pennock

DEARBORN / Dec. 19, 2007---First, social reformers tried to ban alcohol, and succeeded with the passage of Prohibition. But when the public rejected the ban and Congress repealed the 18th Amendment, temperance advocates moved on to a new battle, trying to ban the advertising of alcohol, and the other major social vice, tobacco.

“For many reformers, the advertisement of alcohol and cigarettes showcased the worst of America’s consumer culture: manipulation, profligacy, hedonism and the corruption of innocent youth,” according to Pamela Pennock, associate professor of history at the University of Michigan-Dearborn.

Pennock is the author of Advertising Sin and Sickness: The Politics of Alcohol and Tobacco Marketing, 1950-1990, published earlier this year by the Northern Illinois University Press.

In the book, Pennock documents the history of the national debate on alcohol and tobacco marketing and the social and political movements that sought to regulate it.

“Since the 1920s, smoking and drinking have been emblematic behaviors of consumer culture, typifying the cosmopolitan, pleasurable, and superfluous lifestyle,” Pennock writes. “To challenge the marketing of cigarettes and alcohol was to challenge fundamental elements of American society.”

In the post-World War II era, the early efforts to restrict advertising for alcohol and cigarettes were led by religious groups, mostly Protestant, with strong ties to the earlier temperance movements. Congressional committees held nine hearings on proposals to ban alcohol ads between 1947 and 1958.

The alcohol industries, along with the media and advertising businesses, fought back, and despite agitation from tens of thousands of church-affiliated supporters, “the ‘drys’ lost,” according to Pennock. “No government restrictions on alcohol advertising were implemented during the decades-long campaign.”

Only a few years later, however, a new movement emerged for limiting tobacco advertising, this time led by scientists and health officials, based on new evidence of the health risks of smoking.

“The tobacco industry responded with constitutional objections, and emphasized their economic contributions to the nation,” Pennock said. “The antismokers won partial victories: a tepid warning label law and the banishment of cigarette commercials from radio and television,” she said.

During the 1980s, a similar coalition of public interest groups, scientists and public health officials demanded tough restrictions on alcohol advertising “to protect the health of the nation and the values of children,” Pennock said.

“This new temperance movement emulated the public health approach of the antismoking campaign and disavowed the religious political culture of the old temperance movement,” she said. Pennock quotes the spokesman of the American Medical Association saying, “We’re not out fighting sin. We’re fighting disease.”

In response, the affected industries raised the same objections that they had raised since the 1950s, and in the end, the new temperance advocates could only claim a minor victory, the requirement of warning labels on alcohol packaging, passed in 1988.

According to Pennock, these debates reveal more about American society than attitudes toward smoking and drinking.

“These regulatory efforts sparked ongoing controversy that revealed how deeply divided Americans were over the extent to which government can and should control business behaviors, public health, and individuals’ values and choices,” Pennock said. “Teasing out the changes and continuities among the alcohol and tobacco marketing control debates illuminates significant themes in recent American politics and culture.”

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