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Controversy over Tobacco and Alcohol sites

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For liquor and tobacco manufacturers these days, ”Here’s to good times” must be a nostalgic lament. The Federal Trade Commission is investigating beer ads on TV, Liggett has fessed up that oh, yeah, its cigarettes do cause cancer — even Joe Camel is under attack from his unadmitted target audience: Sacramento high school students recently forced a Camel billboard visible from the school to be taken down.

Now the Web, that bastion of free speech and freeware, is becoming unsafe for the boosters of bad habits. Last month the public-interest watchdog group Center for Media Education (www. cme.org/cme/) released the ominously titled white paper ”Alcohol and Tobacco on the Web: New Threats to Youth.” The report pillories the slick entertainment sites put up by brewing companies, distilleries, and smoking buffs for trying to ”find and woo the younger generations…in the open fields of cyberspace.”

Calling for immediate congressional hearings and regulatory action by both the FDA and the FCC (with no response from either), ”Alcohol and Tobacco” goes both too far and not far enough. Yes, these sites use a cyberparty atmosphere to boogie around the health risks posed by booze and butts. Yes, it is disturbing that, as the CME claims, more children ages 9 to 11 know the Budweiser frogs’ slogan than that of Tony the Tiger. But nowhere does the report address an aspect of these sites that may be even more depressing. Mainly that they’re incredibly stupid.

Well, I guess that’s my job. A day spent clicking through every URL mentioned in the CME report reveals sites that are brain-dead, aimed at the college market, and ought to be slammed; sites that are brain-dead, aimed at older surfers, and ought to be left to fester in their own inanity; sites that are levelheaded, even clever, and represent the least offensive approach to flogging legal substances online; and innocuous sites that have no business being cited at all.

The first category is best represented by Budweiser On-Line (http://www.budweiser. com), whose impoverished frat-boy sensibilities are typified by hideous beer recipes (”Bud Hush Puppy Mix”), unintentionally lame pickup lines (”Hi, I lost my phone number, can I borrow yours?”), and the Anheuser-Busch slogan ”Making friends is our business” (no, making money is). Likewise, Cuervo World (www. cuervo.com) offers a bulletin board with numskull topics like ”Why Don’t Women Drink Tequila in Bars?”; and the superficially upscale Chivas Regal website (www. chivas.com) hosts an online Career Toolbox, perfect for the grad who goes to job interviews snockered.

All these sites employ condescending dude-speak to court the college-age crowd (and by extension, younger groups as well). Miller’s Tap Room (www. mgdtaproom.com), at least, adds updated and surprisingly well-written mini-profiles of rock bands and cybermavens to its otherwise weak site, and the Miller Lite site (http://www.millerlite.com) turns out to be as lazily anarchic as those recent TV ads ”created by Dick”: It’s long on trippy attitude and refreshingly short on hard sell.

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