Liquor interests start anti-GM drive

Protest: Bar owners and others object to a campaign against drunken driving.

February 24, 2005|By KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

DETROIT - General Motors Corp., a lightning rod for criticism about everything from air pollution to auto quality, has become a target for, of all things, one of its charitable efforts - its financial and political push to combat drunken driving.

A national campaign, MADDatGM, has begun with the backing of 17,000 bars, taverns and liquor stores to attack the automaker and Mothers Against Drunk Driving, mostly for their successful effort to lower the national blood-alcohol standard for drunken driving.

The anti-GM effort has been low-key, but GM officials say the Washington trade group behind it is threatening that its members will quit buying General Motors vehicles for corporate fleet use, which could cost the automaker millions of dollars.

The campaign is financed by the American Beverage Licensees, which represents 12,000 bars and 5,000 liquor stores. The effort, which has a Web site and will distribute posters and coasters at stores and bars, contends that MADD is no longer just trying to halt drunken driving, but also has become a "prohibitionist group" that wants to make all drinking a crime.

The campaign claims that GM, with its long-running support of MADD, supports prohibition and that tavern or liquor-store owners should think twice about buying GM cars or trucks.

MADD denies that it's trying to halt social drinking, saying its mission is focused on preventing drunken driving, helping victims of drunken driving and halting underage drinking.

The anti-drunken driving organization notes the MADDatGM push is from businesses that make money off alcohol sales and are angry that MADD successfully lobbied for national blood-alcohol levels for drivers.

GM is one of MADD's top corporate sponsors, donating more than $3 million over the last five years and placing executives on MADD boards. GM spokesman Alan Adler said the automaker supports MADD because "our focus is on drunk driving and the 17,000 people killed each year by drunk driving on the highways."

GM made a commitment in 2000, in honor of MADD's 20th anniversary, to donate at least $2.5 million over five years to MADD. That commitment expired at the end of last year, and GM hasn't decided how much it will donate to MADD this year and beyond, Adler said.

Outsiders say GM seems to be caught between its support of MADD, its desire for the positive publicity that comes with supporting the organization and the threat of losing millions of dollars in business from personal or commercial sales to bar owners, liquor stores and beer, wine and liquor distributors.

The MADDatGM campaign seems in part to be timed to coincide with the end of GM's five-year commitment to MADD.

"We want to stop GM from contributing to MADD. We have a problem with GM money going to criminalize social drinkers. GM needs to recognize it is attacking legitimate businesses," said Richard B. "Rick" Berman, the high-powered Washington lobbyist running the MADDatGM campaign.

Berman has a history of representing tobacco companies, restaurant chains or beer distributors in fights against labor unions, consumer health groups and efforts to raise the minimum wage.

Berman estimates that a "few hundred thousand dollars" has been spent on the MADDatGM campaign and says that could grow if the effort has success.

Restaurant owners in the trade group appear to have pent-up anger against MADD, even those with close geographic ties to GM.

"MADD has become nothing but a prohibition group. I think pressing GM is a small step, but it's the way to go," said Tom Brandel, owner of four Tom's Oyster Bars in Michigan, including one in Detroit directly across from GM headquarters at the Renaissance Center.

"MADD has successfully changed the way people dine. They forced people in groups to have one person who can't drink at all, not even one glass of wine. That's just wrong. Accidents are caused by hard-core alcoholics, people who are really drunk but keep getting on the road," said Brandel.

GM is talking out of both sides of its mouth when the company says it is concerned about safety but sells Corvettes, Berman said, adding "If they really cared about safety, they'd say they won't sell the Corvette to someone who has a certain number of traffic violations."

MADD noted that GM specified that its money was to go to underage drinking prevention for three years and to help people harmed by drunken driving in the next two years.

MADD spokeswoman Heidi Castle said preventing driver distraction is not MADD's focus.

"Our mission is to prevent drunken driving. We want people on the road that are safe. We are not against drinking by people who are over age 21. This group is just trying to scare people because of our effort to lower the blood-alcohol standard" to 0.08 percent, she said.

The national standard for drunken driving is a blood-alcohol content of 0.08 percent in legislation signed in 2000. GM and other automakers joined MADD to help pass that legislation, which forced all 50 states to adopt the 0.08 percent standard.

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