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Big Alcohol:
Worse than Big Tobacco

Dateline: 5/20/98

by Penny Perkins

A few weeks ago, I was randomly chosen from a group of my fellow citizens to serve on a New York State county grand jury.

Citizen's Arrest
That means that one day a week for four months, I go to the county courthouse with 22 other jurors, and listen to assistant D.A.s bring charges against alleged perpetrators. If there is enough evidence (and so far in only one case there has not been enough evidence to satisfy us), then our grand jury issues an indictment (a formal charge) and the case begins its journey toward trial.

The process, for all its pro's and con's, has been extremely edifying about some of the nuts and bolts of the American legal system. But the specific proceedings of a grand jury take place in sworn secrecy and confidentiality (unless, of course, your prosecutor is Ken Starr -- but that's a different column), and therefore I cannot reveal any of the specifics about the process of the cases that have come before me and my fellow jurors.

However, my status as a concerned citizen compels me to make the following general observations based on my experience as a grand juror:

At the Root of Crime is Altered State of Mind
National statistics and my own anecdotal experience on the grand jury confirm that between 60-70% of all crime in this country involves alcohol and drugs, in some respect. Some cases, of course, involve the actual exchange, selling, or stealing of alcohol or drugs -- but more often the involvement of these substance consists of the parties of the crime being drunk, stoned, or high. Another variation is that the victim is drunk, stoned, or high, and places him or herself in a vulnerable situation that he or she might not otherwise when sober.

In fact, in the dozen or so cases I've seen while on the grand jury to date, only one (the theft of property from a mall store) did not involve alcohol or drugs in any way.

Repeat: every other case, no matter what the ultimate charge -- property damage, theft, burglary, criminal trespassing, assault, kidnapping, homicide -- involved a perpetrator who had used alcohol or drugs before (and sometimes in the midst of) committing the crime.

These, clearly, are sobering facts.

And these sobering facts make me wonder about the real priorities of our society.

Big Tobacco: Today's Dragon
Currently, there is -- in my opinion -- an admirable campaign against Big Tobacco: those arrogant corporations who peddle in poison, addict children, lie about scientific research, and abdicate their civic responsibilities for poisoning a population. Because of the economic burden faced by the states to care for populations that are poisoned by tobacco, nicotine, and second-hand smoke, we are now seeing a sea change in public reaction to corporate responsibility for smoking and its health-related hazards.

Again, I applaud and support these admirable battles against Big Tobacco, an industry that has for too long, too contemptuously, and too egregiously reaped Big Profits at the expensive of public health.

Big Alcohol: Tomorrow's Challenge
But here's the rub. After my experience on the grand jury and hearing in detail the criminal consequences of lives gone out of control while lubricated with alcohol, I have to wonder if as a society we're not targeting the lesser of two evils. While the fight against Big Tobacco is necessary to "increase the peace," it is not sufficient until we also turn our sites onto Big Alcohol.

Yes, as unhealthy as tobacco is -- and even given the number of crimes, both civic and moral, the tobacco companies have committed in promoting smoking -- abuse of tobacco is not an underlying foundation to crime and criminal activity the way alcohol and drugs are. Yes, as nasty and unhealthy as smoking is, it is not normally the case that a troubled soul smokes a pack of cigarettes and then, aggitated by nicotine, goes on a crime rampage. More likely, our felon-in-waiting Frankie downs a six-pack, tosses back a fifth of J.D., smokes crack, or shoots up herion and then goes about perpetrating his anti-social, criminal activities.

Being Smashed is Just Another Word for Nothing Left to Lose
So far in my jury duty, the only time I have even heard mention of tobacco in connection with a crime was when a baby was burned in the face with a cigarette -- and that lovely gesture came from a father who was high on crack. Was it the cigarette that injured the baby -- no, it was the father altered by drugs.

So, sure, let's fight Big Tobacco -- tooth and nail, stained fingertips and yellowed teeth -- and let's break up their evil empire and return some sanctity to the notion of public health

But let's not stop there. No. Let's use our fight against Big Tobacco as merely a warm-up, as a massive public practice of strategies and morale-building on our way to vanquishing our real opponent, the real elephant in the courtroom: Big Alcohol.

Still Not Convinced?
If you're still not convinced, then let's go over the statistics again:

  • 60-70% of all crimes involve alcohol and/or drugs

  • more than 10% of North Americans are alcoholics

  • a teenager sees 100,000 alcohol ads before reaching the legal drinking age

  • nearly 50% of automobile fatalities are linked to alcohol

Statistics from Adbusters Magazine.

If we truly want to stop crime and increase the peace and safety in our homes and our streets, we will re-think our attitudes toward alcohol and drugs -- but especially alcohol, which is a legally-sanctioned and culturally-accepted drug.

When we stop the insidious tide of alcohol in our homes and our communities -- and give people better options in their lives, so that alcohol is no longer needed as a blanket escape from pain and misery -- then we will inhabit a world of better habits.

And our tour of duty as citizens on juries may be less heart-breaking.

Do you have or does someone you know have a drinking problem? Try these sites: The recovery links from the CDGLCC of Albany, NY.

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