• Battle Over Liquor Ads Has Just Begun
  • March 17, 2005
  • Law Firm: Manatt, Phelps & Phillips, LLP - Los Angeles Office
  • Is alcohol the new tobacco? Plaintiffs' lawyers are betting that it is, and though their track record thus far isn't promising, there are still plenty of lawsuits to go.

    So far, there are four class actions pending against the industry, the first filed in 2003 in District of Columbia state court. The others are wending their way through state and federal courts in Colorado, North Carolina, and Ohio. The suits, all filed by David Boies III, son of famed attorney David Boies, allege that alcohol manufacturers deliberately market their products to underage drinkers by advertising in youth-oriented media, using cartoons to attract children to their message, and selling toys and clothes designed to appeal to youths. According to the Journal of the American Medical Association, underage drinkers comprise about 20 percent of the U.S. market.

    Plaintiffs also claim that several of the leading beer and distilled spirits manufacturers, including Zima, Mike's Hard Lemonade, Bacardi, and Coors, have conducted "secret market research" into the drinking habits of underage drinkers. The suits further claim that the companies have concealed this research by using code words to disguise these marketing efforts targeting children.

    As reported in the February 7, 2005, issue of [email protected], a fifth class action, which also alleged public nuisance and violation of California's unfair competition laws, was dismissed on January 28, 2005, when a Los Angeles state court ruled the plaintiffs failed to show how the marketing campaigns by beer makers Anheuser-Busch and Miller Brewing Co. caused the plaintiffs harm. The lead plaintiffs, Lynne and Reed Goodwin, sued after an 18-year-old drunken driver killed their daughter in 2003. The lawyers for the Goodwins have said they will appeal the ruling.

    Significance: Some experts say the alcohol lawsuits seem less likely to succeed because research has raised doubts about a link between ads and underage drinking, and a more positive public attitude toward alcohol. But don't expect the plaintiffs' lawyers to give up on their latest cause so easily. The payoff for plaintiffs' lawyers is potentially huge. The tobacco lawsuits led to a settlement in 1998 in which tobacco companies agreed to pay $246 billion to state governments to cover healthcare costs and other smoking-related expenses, and equally staggering attorneys' fees.