Mad at MADD
Alcohol merchants say you shouldn't donate to Mothers Against Drunk Driving. Really?
Finally, somebody has the guts to take on Mothers Against Drunk Driving.
"Mothers Against Drunk Driving Receives Another 'D' from Charity Rating Guide," shouts the Aug. 24 press release. It notes that the guide's publisher, the American Institute of Philanthropy, "says most highly efficient charities are able to spend 75 percent or more of total expenses on charitable programs. Yet, MADD has spent as little as 61 percent on programs."
Sixty-one percent versus 75 percent? That doesn't sound great, but it doesn't sound awful, either. So why the press release?
Look at who's issuing the release: the American Beverage Institute.
ABI calls itself "a restaurant trade association, representing America's favorite restaurant chains as well as hundreds of individual restaurants and on-premise retailers." It stands for "the protection of responsible on-premise consumption of adult beverages." In other words, ABI doesn't represent the alcohol industry. It represents places where you might go to drink alcohol before getting in your car to drive home.
Hence its war on MADD. ABI wants to weaken drunken-driving regulation by persuading MADD's donors to stop giving money to the organization. To discourage them, ABI argues that MADD has wasted donations and "diverted money" from programs to get "drunk drivers off the roads."
It's a touching plea. But if MADD were truly ineffective, ABI would be happy to let MADD's donors go on wasting their money. ABI is trying to defund MADD not because MADD diverts money from drunken-driving crackdowns, but because MADD spends money on drunken-driving crackdowns.
Over the years, ABI has fought MADD on nearly every alcohol-related issue, from liquor taxes to sobriety checkpoints. Often, the merits are debatable. But ABI doesn't argue for moderation. Like the National Rifle Association, it opposes any restriction, no matter how reasonable. Consider interlocks, which can prevent a car from starting if its driver's breath, as measured by a sensor, exceeds a proscribed blood-alcohol limit. ABI opposes the use of these devices not just for the general public but even for "first-time DUI offenders" with blood-alcohol concentrations below 0.15 percent. (The legal threshold for DUI is 0.08 percent.) * ABI complains that "legislatures are steadily approving legislation aimed at first-time offenders, often drivers who are only one sip above the limit. … This legislation is the first step of anti-alcohol groups toward their long-term goal of universal interlocks."
This extremism is part of a broader pattern. In addition to MADD, ABI is waging PR wars against the American Medical Association, the World Health Organization, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the National Transportation Safety Board, and other organizations with "very radical agendas." ABI's executive director, Rick Berman, runs a network of lobbying groups that oppose regulation of animal welfare, soda, corn syrup, indoor tanning, and mercury in fish. Berman's Web sites condemn the Humane Society of the United States and claim that the "anti-cancer benefits" of tanning "far outweigh the risks associated with over-exposure." In defense of public smoking, Berman asserts a "lack of evidence that second-hand smoke causes cancer."
Unlike MADD, Berman doesn't reveal his donors. But over the years, investigative journalists have identified some of them, including Coca-Cola, Wendy's, White Castle, and Outback Steakhouse. And thanks to documents exposed by the 1998 tobacco settlement, you can read Berman's 1995 letters to Philip Morris, in which he obtained $600,000 in seed money for his PR empire by pledging "to unite the restaurant and hospitality industries in a campaign to defend their consumers and marketing programs against attacks from anti-smoking, anti-drinking, anti-meat, etc. activists." In total, Philip Morris gave Berman nearly $3 million during the three years covered by the documents.
Will Saletan covers science, technology, and politics for Slate and says a lot of things that get him in trouble.
Television still of Rick Berman courtesy The Rachel Maddow Show © MSNBC.