NASCAR and the NBA are traveling in opposite directions on the issue of alcohol. Recently the NBA announced that it is bouncing alcohol sales in the fourth quarter in order to curb improper conduct. Apparently someone has put two and two together; the longer fans drink alcohol, the more unruly they become.

Credit the NBA for recognizing the problem and for making a tough decision, despite the huge amount of money that will be lost in alcohol sales.

NASCAR, on the other hand, has shown that if you want to buy them a drink, make it a little stronger than a Bud. A little Crown Royal will be just fine, thank you.

In a sport that takes around $15 million a year to keep a team on the track, NASCAR has decided to lift its ban on spirit companies who are looking for new advertising venues for their product.

Look for the purple Crown Royal logo on car number 97, driven by Kurt Busch, the 2004 NASCAR Nextel Cup Champion. It remains to be seen whether Busch will raise a jug of Crown Royal if he ends up in victory lane.

The about-face by NASCAR is ironic. Just last year NASCAR changed the name of its overall championship from the Winston Cup to the Nextel Cup, in part because of the growing concern about tobacco products’ effect on people’s health. As tobacco use has fallen out of popularity among a majority of Americans, NASCAR was forced to look for another sponsor. Nextel was the winning bid. The decision wasn’t a moral one but an economic one.

Advertising is done for one reason, to increase sales. When you throw a wide net in advertising, you catch a wide audience, which includes underage drinkers. Consequently, spirit advertisements have long been frowned upon for television and in teenage sensitive venues.

Diageo, the company that produces Crown Royal, emphasizes responsible drinking in their ads. “It’s About Quality, Not Quantity” is their trademark.

But the only quantity that matters for the underage drinker is zero ounces. Even messages that stress responsible drinking are still messages that promote the product. Such commercials are still designed to sell the product and will still have an impact on underage drinkers.

With the lift of the ban on spirit advertising, can NASCAR be sure, even with all the emphasis placed on moderation and legal age limits, that the advertisement of this product will not entice any of the hundreds of thousands of underage NASCAR fans to try the product should they have the opportunity?

Perhaps the sport is simply going back to its roots, to the days when moonshiners souped up their cars to outrun the law.

Or maybe they realize something else–the American public is awash in alcohol advertisements and sales already, especially in the promotion of professional sports. Alcohol sales and professional sports are joined at the hip. Can you imagine a Super Bowl without beer commercials? Sometime they are better than the game.

This is an oddity, given how unhealthy alcohol can be for an athlete. According to Erwin Kaussner, author of High Performance for Champions– A New Vision of Sports Nutrition, alcohol robs the athlete’s body of minerals, prevents regeneration of muscles, diminishes performance, adds fat to the body, deadens the nerves, destroys the brain, promotes injuries and slows healing. Yet, the athlete is used as the backdrop for a large percentage of advertising dollars by alcohol companies.

Defenders of lifting the ban on spirit sales by NASCAR point out that alcohol is alcohol. A beer-too-many gets a person just as drunk as a shot-too-many. Besides, it has been pointed out, teenagers are far more likely to engage in illegal drinking with beer rather than hard liquor because of beer’s availability, its lower cost and name recognition.

So perhaps the biggest warning sign raised by lifting the ban on spirit sales by NASCAR and cable television is that the American public has become so comfortable with beer advertisements–even in settings where underage drinkers are influenced–that it will not care about the softened stance.

Common sense says the reasons that brought about the ban on spirit advertisements on television and at sporting venues are still present. Nothing has changed to make this a good idea. The reasons for a ban are now simply being ignored.

The decision to cast a wide net in advertising by beer and spirit companies is not about common sense, however. It’s about increased sales. It’s about influence. It’s about market share.

Alcohol will always be a part of our society. Many people demonstrate responsible use. But the evidence is overwhelming that alcohol is often abused. Abuse of alcohol destroys lives, separates families, ends careers and ends lives, both of the abuser and of innocent people.

A product with this kind of devastating potential should be limited in its sales and in its space to advertise. There will always be a tug of war between those who want to consume and sell the product and those who see the devastation the product brings on society.

Who wouldn’t be appalled to see a beer commercial placed on the cartoon television network? There are limits to advertising to which most of us can agree. Yet, the same kids who watch cartoons also watch sports and are influenced by the products advertised in association with sports, whether it’s the NBA or NASCAR.

Alcohol companies may preach responsible use of their product but in the final assessment, sales are what they care about the most. Otherwise, they wouldn’t choose advertising markets where children and teenagers are so heavily influenced.

Michael Helms is pastor of Trinity Baptist Church in Moultrie, Ga. His column appears in The Moultrie Observer.

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