Take me out to the beer game

Dusty Horwitt and George A.Hacker

August 05, 1992|By Dusty Horwitt and George A. Hacker

BEFORE the opening season at Oriole Park at Camden Yards had even begun, the Orioles gave Joe Camel and his friends the heave-ho by removing tobacco ads from the park for one year.

Alcohol ads deserve the same treatment. By throwing them out, as well as by restricting beer sales and promotion, the Orioles would make a big pitch for the interests of all fans, especially young ones.

Joe Camel was so controversial because many people believed that his familiarity and visual appeal encouraged young people to smoke cigarettes, exposing them to serious future health problems. There should be similar concern about alcohol ads, which promote a product that poses no less a danger to kids.

A recent study by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism showed that one out of three high school students, about 4.6 million of them, experience serious problems with alcohol before leaving high school. Drunk driving is the leading killer of 15- to 19-year-olds. And a 1987 government survey found that 26 percent of eighth graders and 38 percent of 10th graders had consumed five or more drinks in one sitting in the two weeks preceding the survey. As these figures show, young people and drinking don't mix.

Yet when thousands of young fans come to each game at Camden Yards, they can't help but see ads for beer. The array includes concourse-level ads for different Anheuser-Busch brands (the brewer is the stadium's only beer advertiser), a field-level Bud Light ad down the third-base line and a huge Budweiser billboard next to the scoreboard in right-center field, which an Orioles marketing publication says has been "carefully positioned to maximize exposure to TV cameras, photographers' positions and the fans' sightlines."

Anheuser-Busch itself has acknowledged that there is a youth drinking problem and has said that it doesn't pitch ads to kids. A 1991 ad in the New York Times reads: "We direct our advertising to beer drinkers and our media selection is designed to reach legitimate beer consumers 21 years of age or older." Nonetheless, the St. Louis-based brewer continues to advertise during televised sports events and at ballparks, where sizable numbers of underage fans are in the audience.

Maybe Anheuser-Busch really isn't as concerned as it professes to be about kids seeing ads, or maybe it has a more sinister motive. In either case, the company is throwing the public a curve. (Anheuser-Busch cannot be too unhappy that its giant ad next to the scoreboard sits across from an equally large display for that comparatively harmless, all-American beverage, Coke.)

In addition to getting rid of alcohol ads, the Orioles would do well to cut back on beer promotion and find ways to prevent overconsumption and other alcohol-related problems. Although the club has taken some small steps, including cutting off beer sales after the eighth inning and providing free soda or coffee to designated drivers, the O's overall efforts have left them far behind many major-league clubs. While 10 of the 26 teams have stopped selling beer in the stands, the ubiquitous beer vendors continue to flood Oriole Park. And while 10 teams limit fans to two beers per purchase, the Orioles allow four.

Since the Orioles lease Oriole Park at Camden Yards from a public stadium authority, they have a special obligation to stop promoting a product that imposes such high economic and social costs on taxpayers. A 1988 study by the Center for Science in the Public Interest found that alcohol-related costs for Maryland and the District of Columbia totaled $3.43 billion. For 1991, the Maryland Department of Transportation reported 31,712 drunk-driving arrests and 256 deaths from alcohol- and drug-related crashes.

Based on the Orioles' success in replacing cigarette ads, there is no reason to believe they would suffer greatly from ridding Oriole Park of much of its alcohol influence. In a recent Wall Street

Journal article, the team's advertising director, David Cope, said: "We realized the park is quite popular, and we're comfortable with the fact that we're not going to have to depend on tobacco revenues."

But money is not the real issue. As good citizens and occupants of a publicly owned stadium, the Orioles should help prevent alcohol-related problems. By throwing out beer ads, toning down promotion and developing a more responsible sales policy, the team would send a positive, clear message to fans: This stadium's for you.

Dusty Horwitt is a baseball player at Brown University and a summer associate at the Washington-based Advocacy Institute. George A. Hacker is director of the institute's alcohol programs.

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