Power brouhaha

June 27, 1991

The most insidious aspect of marketing alcohol and cigarettes is targeting such products at groups that are at particular risk of addiction. Last year R.J. Reynolds took what, until now, has been the most audacious step -- introducing two new cigarette brands designed to appeal to inner-city blacks and under-educated women. The outrage of health secretary Louis Sullivan, along with widespread negative publicity, forced Reynolds to scrap its plans. But now comes Maryland's own G. Heileman Brewing Co. with a high-alcohol malt beer that deserves the same fate.

PowerMaster, which contains one-third more alcohol than other malt liquors, is packaged and promoted to appeal to low-income, inner-city blacks and Hispanics. It comes in sleek 12-ounce cans adorned with silver and white letters and a red colt, and is featured in billboard ads with a black male model. The implication conveyed both by the name and the horse is that PowerMaster packs a heck of a kick. The message of "empowerment" is more subtle, but it's there.

While six-packs of PowerMaster were being unloaded in Baltimore this week, Surgeon General Antonia Novello called Heileman's marketing scheme "socially irresponsible," and said the company should drop the campaign. But it will take more than moral indignation to get PowerMaster off the shelves.

For starters, Annapolis Alderman Carl Snowden has aske Sullivan to bring the same public pressure to bear on Heileman that he did on R.J. Reynolds. There is also talk of federal action to force the brewery to change the product's name, and more talk of changing federal rules to force disclosure of the alcohol content on product lables. But all this skirts the real issue: that alcohol is wreaking havoc in inner-city communities -- and that taking advantage of the situation is unconscionable.

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