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WASHINGTON - The National Academy of Sciences recommended in a long-awaited report Wednesday that government officials combat underage drinking by raising alcohol taxes and sharply limiting liquor advertising on television and in magazines.
The report, which some hope will lay the groundwork for a comprehensive national plan to tackle drinking by minors, found that underage drinking kills 6.5 times more youths than all illicit drugs combined and that traffic fatalities and violent crime associated with underage drinking cost the country $53 billion a year.
The report received bipartisan support from lawmakers, who hailed it as the first substantial look at combating underage drinking since the 1984 legislation that raised the drinking age nationally to 21. Sen. Mike DeWine, R-Ohio, said he would soon hold hearings on the issue.
But the recommendation to raise taxes and regulate advertising encountered immediate resistance from groups representing alcohol makers and distributors.
"The only clear results from increasing beer excise taxes are higher unemployment and higher prices for responsible adults," said Jeff Becker, president of the Beer Institute. "Such measures do nothing to lower teen drinking."
But people concerned about underage drinking, including Wendy Hamilton, president of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, insisted tax increases would reduce consumption by price-sensitive youths.
She also agreed with the report's finding that alcohol is less expensive today than it was in the 1960s and '70s, when factoring in inflation.
"It only makes sense to adjust (taxes) according to inflation," said George Hacker of the Center for Science in the Public Interest.
Becker, of the Beer Institute, disagreed.
"Federal, state and local taxes are the most expensive ingredient in every beer purchased, making up approximately 44 percent of the cost of every beer," he said.
Those seeking higher taxes also asked for the federal government to increase spending beyond the current $71.1 million budgeted to strengthen a national media campaign to combat underage drinking. Legislators maintain that the sum pales in comparison with other federally funded campaigns.
"The government spent $1.8 billion in 2002 for its anti-drug campaign and $100 million for smoking prevention," said Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard, D-Calif.
"I want to see the drug czar going after underage drinking," said Rep. Zach Wamp, R-Tenn. "This isn't just a supply problem, but also a demand problem."
He criticized the volume of advertisements that he says are directed at the underage market and referred specifically to sexual innuendoes in alcohol commercials.
Industry officials strongly denied that they target youth.
"We have never and will never direct our advertising at underage drinkers," said Lisa Hawkins, spokeswoman for the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States.
Hawkins added that distilleries comply with Federal Trade Commission standards on placing ads.
That argument did not convince Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn.
"All you have to do is go to a football game to see all the incessant beer ads," DeLauro said.
The report by the National Academy of Sciences' National Research Council and Institute of Medicine was requested by Congress, but lawmakers from both parties said they recognize the difficulty of passing legislation aimed at curbing underage drinking.
"Illegal drinking makes up 20 percent of the alcohol industry's market," Roybal-Allard said.
Similar legislation, which would have raised taxes and restricted advertising, has stalled in Congress twice since 2000, according to Hacker, of the Center for Science in the Public Interest.
"Hopefully, this report will wake up parents, legislators and the beverage industry," said Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va.
(c) 2003, Chicago Tribune. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.