Anheuser-Busch, Drunk on Greed

Big brewers like Anheuser-Busch frequently admonish us imbibers of their grain products to “drink responsibly.” Well, I say back to them: Lobby responsibly.

In particular, I point to a disgusting binge of besotted lobbying by Anheuser-Busch (now owned by the Belgian beer conglomerate InBev) and other beer barons this year in the Nebraska legislature.

At issue was the “town” of Whiteclay, smack dab on the Nebraska-South Dakota border. I put “town” in quotes because only 10 people live there — but it is home to four beer stores. Why? Because right across the state line is the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation of the Oglala Sioux tribe, which has a devastating problem of alcohol addiction among its 20,000 members, combined with intractable and dispiriting poverty.

Whiteclay exists solely so booze peddlers can profit from the Oglala tribe’s addiction miseries. They sell more than 4 million cans of beer a year to Pine Ridge residents! This includes literally making a killing by peddling high-alcohol malt liquors, such as Busch’s aptly named “Hurricane High.” So much for “Drink responsibly.”

A fourth of the children on the reservation are born with fetal alcohol birth defects. Life expectancy of tribal members is less than 50 years. And more than 90 percent of the violent crime on the reservation is attributed to drunkenness. On Pine Ridge itself, the tribe bans the sale and consumption of alcohol — the Whiteclay stores, positioned only a short walk away, are the source of the addictive drug and its consequences.

Responding to this grotesque exploitation of an epidemic illness, Republican state Sen. LeRoy Louden introduced LB 829 this year, a modest bill to designate Whiteclay as an “alcohol impact zone.” Used successfully in Tennessee, Washington state and elsewhere, these zones allow authorities to take such steps as limiting store hours and high-alcohol beers. Of course, Busch and its other beer buddies lobbied responsibly by backing the bill, right?

Ha! Like gators on a poodle, their lobbyists leapt on the legislature, calling in chits from key lawmakers (who’d taken thousands of dollars in campaign cash from the industry) to kill the bill.

Tyson Larson, one of the senators inebriated with beer money, sputtered his opposition to LB 829 with this stunningly obtuse declaration: “We’re not here to protect people from themselves.” Surely that was beer talking.

Then there’s Russ Karpisek, chair of the Senate committee handling the bill. He tried to rationalize his opposition by pitting Pine Ridge citizens against Nebraskans whom he said were worried that if Whiteclay were restricted, the beermongers might simply move the problem 40 miles or so down the road.

Even he had to admit that this was, at best, a flimsy excuse for doing nothing. When some asked Karpisek, “Well, if you had a crack house across the street, wouldn’t you want to do something about it, even if it might pop up somewhere else the next day?” The chairman frankly conceded, “I didn’t have a good answer for that.”

But who needs logical answers when Anheuser-Busch alone has put $4,000 in your political pocket? Karpisek dutifully refused even to let the bill out of his committee for a vote.

Nebraska legislators did, however, approve one piece of liquor reform legislation before adjourning on April 18. They voted to lift the statewide prohibition against Sunday morning alcohol sales. Just what the Oglala tribe needs — a few more hours of wide-open beer sales in Whiteclay.

The tribal council, fed up with the disrespect and lack of action from legislators, despite years of appeals and protests, has filed a landmark $500 million federal lawsuit against Anheuser-Busch, three other big brewers and Whiteclay’s four beer stores.

Even a big monetary award, however, can’t scrub the shame off the corporations and pusillanimous legislators who have created and maintained this outrageous affront to human decency. There must certainly be an especially hot barstool in hell reserved for them.

Jim Hightower