Commentary

Alcohol Supersensitivity

Puritans have long been viewed as people who couldn’t stand the thought of anyone anywhere having a good time. The original Puritans really weren’t that way, but, today, the world seems full of such killjoys.

For instance, in Dallas, the local Starplex amphitheater has sold naming rights to United Distillers & Vintners, a unit of Britain’s Diageo PLC that controls one-fifth of the U.S. distilled spirits market. Local activists are in an uproar.

A multitude of stadiums and other entertainment facilities have sold their identities. As did the 20,000-seat music complex, Dallas’ largest, which for 10 years was known as Coca-Cola Starplex. But Coke ended its sponsorship in 1998, so the House of Blues and SFX Entertainment Inc. recently inked an eight-year deal with UDV to call the Starplex the Smirnoff Music Centre.

From the subsequent popular reaction, one would think that a bunch of Colombian druglords had taken over the city. Dallas City Councilman Leo Chaney told the Dallas Morning News : ”My first reaction is to organize the community and picket and protest in front of the Starplex.”

Exactly why is hard to fathom. Chaney complained that the name countered the attempt ”to deal with the perception that the South Dallas/Fair Park area is overrun by liquor establishments.”

Yet, the area where the Starplex is located either is or isn’t so overrun. The Centre’s name is irrelevant.

A number of other people complained about the ”message.” One parent said simply: ”I don’t think they ought to name a facility with something that everybody associates with alcohol.”

But alcohol is legal to sell. It is legal to advertise. It is legal to drink. What, then, is wrong with putting the name of Smirnoff, an alcoholic beverage, on a building?

Adults have a right to learn about the availability of a legal product. There’s no difference in principle among advertising in a magazine, on television, through a billboard or with a building’s name.

Moreover, there’s no reason to believe that any of these is likely to create a surge in drinking. Most people don’t have to be lobbied to enjoy alcohol. They do have to be prodded to choose a particular maker’s brand. Thus, the Smirnoff Music Centre is more likely to affect brand preferences than consumption levels.

Interestingly, in the Centre Smirnoff liquor will be available only to members of two private clubs. The public concessionaires just sell beer and wine.

The last refuge of the Texas Puritans is that some children will see the name. By that logic nothing unavailable to children smoking cigarettes, making contracts, driving autos, getting tattoos, going bungee jumping should be advertised anywhere, anytime. If even one child is present, everyone should be treated as a child.

That, of course, would eliminate the illusion that we live in a free society. The goal should not be to hide from minors images of the rights of adulthood, but to prepare children to exercise those rights intelligently when they become adults.

Indeed, UDV does not advertise to audiences with less than 70 percent adults. Fewer than one-in-10 Starplex attendees are under 21. Moreover, UDV doesn’t plan on including images of Smirnoff bottles at the Centre.

Given the controversy, one might think that Smirnoff was the first entertainment facility to be named after an alcohol producer. However, the names Bud Light, Busch, Coors, and Molson adorn amphitheaters and stadiums in several cities.

A similar controversy erupted several years ago when Seagram’s announced that it planned on advertising whiskey on television. Critics streamed forth while ignoring the beer advertising that pervades TV.

Yet alcohol is alcohol: all standard drinks include roughly the same amount of alcohol, 14.5 grams. The 12-ounce bottle of Smirnoff Ice is 5 percent alcohol by volume, the same as a 12-ounce bottle of beer.

If the Dallas protesters were really serious, they should attack other Starplex sponsors. There is, after all, Coors Brewing Co., which sells, yes, alcohol. Ben & Jerry’s, which foists cholesterol-rich ice cream on America’s overweight population. And the Texas Lottery, which inveigles poor people to waste their money on the ripoff that masquerades as state-sponsored gambling.

Almost any good thing in life can be abused. So it is with alcohol.

But UDV has attempted to minimize such problems, participating in a number of industry and community initiatives that address drunken and underage driving. There is nothing to suggest that UDV is anything other than a responsible provider of a perfectly moral and legal product.

It’s hard to know whether the Smirnoff Music Centre is worth the $6 million spent by UDV. But that is the company’s problem. UDV has a right to buy the naming rights to the amphitheater.

Freedom is precious. Among its greatest enemies are well-intended busybodies who desire to treat the rest of us like children. If they succeed, we will all lose.

Doug Bandowis a senior fellow at the Cato Institute.