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December 3,  2003



Is Big Alcohol Litigation Next?

Q:  Since litigation has been used to address tobacco damage, can it also be used to address alcohol damage?

 A:  The states’ tobacco lawsuits provide us with important lessons for alcohol.  The greatest benefit of the tobacco litigation was not any of the legal awards and settlements, but public health gains made possible by court supervised discovery of industry documents.  That documentation showed that the industry aggressively promoted tobacco to children while hiding the facts about addiction and disease.  As a result, public perceptions of the industry turned sour, giving lawmakers the necessary public support to promote tobacco control legislation including increased tobacco taxes and indoor smoking bans.

 The similarities between tobacco and alcohol promotion are clear.  Both products are aggressively marketed to children.  Both cause disease and death.  In addition to long-term disease, alcohol use can also result in immediate damage: unintentional injuries, drunk driving collisions, domestic violence, and crime, thus creating huge criminal justice as well as public health costs.

 One major tobacco litigation success sent Joe Camel packing through the California consumer protection lawsuit.  The complaint had cited articles in the Journal of the American Medical Association that demonstrated the link between the cartoon ads and huge increases in Camel's underage market share.  RJ Reynolds (Joe’s maker) was committing fraud by promoting an illegal act: selling its product to underage youth.  This strategy may show promise in the alcohol arena as well.  The alcohol industry places its youth-oriented print, television, and radio commercials in media with large underage audiences.  The industry is unjustly enriched by illegal sales to minors which make up 15 to 20 percent of alcohol market share. 

 After years of largely unsuccessful personal injury and “failure to warn” alcohol suits, the first alcohol litigation–based on consumer fraud–has just been filed in the District of Columbia.  While alcohol damages related to underage drinking are well-documented, proving industry fraud may be difficult.  Consumer attorneys will face substantial legal hurdles, the first of which is to survive summary judgment so that they can gain access to industry internal memoranda. 

 Litigation alone won't solve the many problems of underage drinking.  However, judging from the states’ tobacco lawsuits, litigation may provide an important tool for uncovering the darker side of alcohol marketing.  And ultimately, it could give policymakers the support they need to translate legal remedies into sound public health alcohol policies.

Center on Alcohol and Youth marketing

Center for Science in the Public Interest

Tobacco Control Resource Center and Tobacco Products Liability Center

UCSF Tobacco Archives

Alcohol Industry Sued for Marketing to Children
Lawsuit Tries Similar Legal Strategy as Tobacco Case

Alcohol Industry Faces Suit Alleging Marketing to Teens

Alcohol Advertising Alert

This TF news story is a based on Implications of Tobacco Litigation for Alcohol Policy, Amy N. Fairweather, JD, James F. Mosher, JD, presented Nov. 17, 2003, APHA annual meeting. Preparation of this paper was assisted by a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Substance Abuse Policy Research Program.