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Drink, Don't Drink. Drink, Don't Drink

In April, Kansas tightened its drunken-driving law. It was nothing surprising: since the days when Carry Nation took a hatchet to its speakeasies, the state has tended to have a low drinking rate and an even lower tolerance for the recklessly inebriated.

Yet just a month later, the state relaxed its ban on the Sunday sale of liquor. In some parts, it is now as easy to buy a bottle of gin after church as a stick of butter.

If Kansas seems at cross-purposes, then consider the zigs and zags of the television industry. In recent years, liquor commercials have sprouted in vast numbers on cable stations and affiliates of the major broadcast networks. But the networks themselves continue to bar them, even as they run beer commercials with bikini-clad women. Liquor commercials, the networks worry, might offend people's sensibilities.

Unlike, say, the French or Italians, Americans have often regarded drinking with a kind of unease that gives rise to contradictions and dissonance and boomerang shifts in attitudes. Lately, as the alcohol industry pushes to increase sales by trying to remove some of the regulations and stigma surrounding it, and advocacy groups and health experts push back, these strains seem all the more evident.

States are tightening some alcohol laws and loosening others, including repealing bans on Sunday sales and liquor billboards, and permitting stores to hold free tasting events for hard liquor. Businesses are embracing alcohol and the dollars it brings, while trying to convey that they do so only halfheartedly.

Wal-Mart is plunging into liquor retailing, even as it maintains a longstanding ban on alcohol at its headquarters and at all corporate events. Nascar is allowing Jim Beam and other liquor brands to festoon its cars with the emblems of sponsorship, but promises that their messages will be "strongly grounded in responsibility." So television networks that bar liquor commercials are broadcasting races where liquor advertising is prominent.

"There are these really ambiguous messages about alcohol that you end up receiving from the leadership of the country," said Paul M. Roman, a sociologist at the University of Georgia. "The messages end up being very mixed up and very confusing. And this ambivalence has been around a long time."

In fact, it dates to before independence. Policies regarding alcohol have been shaped by sometimes clashing beliefs. Personal freedom is valued, but a puritanical streak lingers. There is trust in free markets but also a wariness of treating alcohol as just any product.

Consumption levels have oscillated wildly in American history. They have dropped in recent years, in part because of warnings about drunken driving and the health effects of heavy drinking. Consumption of hard alcohol sagged by roughly 40 percent between 1980 and 2002, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (Consumption of beer was down 10 percent; consumption of wine was stable.)

This collapse in sales has led the alcohol industry, especially distillers, to challenge the boundaries of television advertising and state liquor laws. A voluntary agreement to keep liquor commercials off television fell apart in the mid-1990's. But the ads have proliferated only in the last few years. The number of liquor commercials on national cable networks jumped to more than 37,000 in 2004 from 645 in 2001, according to the Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth at Georgetown University.

The major broadcast networks will not show the ads - though cable stations that have the same owners do.

Under the current voluntary practices, for example, the Fox Sports cable network will run liquor commercials after 10 p.m., but its corporate cousin, the Fox broadcast network, will not run them when it shows its own nighttime sports programming.

The distinctions can have little to do with the shows that the commercials will interrupt. Jack Daniels can advertise on the serious-minded "NewsNight With Aaron Brown" on CNN, which began accepting liquor ads this year, but not on the commercial time on "Desperate Housewives" sold by the ABC network. .

The major broadcast networks say they are far more regulated than cable stations, so they are leery of offending federal officials, and they reach households across the nation, including areas that frown on drinking. Of course, the cable stations are almost as widely available, though not as widely viewed. What it comes down to is a perception that liquor commercials on the major networks would symbolize that liquor is nearly as unexceptional as Diet Coke, and the nation may not be ready for that.

A few years ago, NBC tried to become the first broadcast network to run liquor commercials, but retreated under fire from some officials and advocacy groups. "There is so much sensitivity toward alcohol and how it is consumed," explained Alan Wurtzel, president of research at NBC Universal.

But what about beer commercials?

The fissures are also revealed in the debates over bans on Sunday sales of liquor. Twelve states, including Kansas and New York, have now scaled back these laws in some form in recent years, leaving 16 states that still have strict bans on Sunday sales of liquor, according to the Distilled Spirits Council.

Distillers and merchants have lobbied for the repeals, and lawmakers often agree in hopes that they will reap more taxes from increased sales. Still, the states wind up with their own tangle of messages. On the one hand, officials urge people to drink only in moderation, if at all, and to give the car keys to someone else if they are intoxicated. On the other hand, officials are making alcohol more accessible and visible - and studies suggest that easier access to alcohol may lead to more social problems, like alcoholism, violence and drunken driving. That is why states raised the drinking age to 21 in the first place.

In Kansas, some lawmakers expressed these concerns, but a majority in the Legislature sided with distillers and liquor stores in border areas who complained that they were losing business to other states on Sundays.

"This was an economic issue," said Tom Groneman, director of Alcohol Beverage Control in Kansas. "It keeps the dollars in Kansas."

While the law now offers localities the option of approving or rejecting Sunday sales, it makes one Sunday sacrosanct. No matter what the localities decide, no liquor store in Kansas can open on Easter.


Clifford J. Levy, The New York Times. October 9, 2005

Copyright © 2005 The New York Times Company. All rights reserved.