Tribe Sues Beer Companies

– L. Arthalia Cravin

Not long ago I posted a commentary on this website raising questions about what appeared to be the deliberate targeting of Native Americans for the over-consumption of alcohol leading to rampant alcoholism and a host of other social problems. That column mentioned that the purveyors of these distilled drinks were located a few feet from Indian Reservation borders, and that millions of dollars were being made from these alcohol sales. Some of the feedback to my column suggested that no one was forcing anyone on the reservation to drink alcohol.

Today, one tribe filed a lawsuit against the largest beer makers claiming that they knowingly contributed to devastating alcohol-related problems on South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. The lawsuit names Anheuser-Busch InBev Worldwide, SAB Miller, Molson Coors Brewing Company, MIllerCoors LLC and Pabst Brewing Company as defendants. The lawsuit is demanding $500 million in damages for the cost of health care, social services and child rehabilitation caused by chronic alcoholism on the reservation, where alcohol is banned.

The lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court of Nebraska also targets four offsite beer stores in Whiteclay, a Nebraska town that despite having only about a dozen residents sold nearly 5 million cans of beer in 2010. Leaders of the tribe blame the Whiteclay businesses for bootlegging on the reservation. Most of its customers come from the reservation on the town’s border. The lawsuit says one in four children born on the reservation suffer from fetal alcohol syndrome or fetal alcohol spectrum disorder. The average life expectancy is estimated between 45 and 52 years, the shortest in North America except for Haiti, according to the lawsuit. The average American life expectancy is 77.5 years.

The lawsuit alleges that the beer makers supplied the stores with “volumes of beer far in excess of an amount that could be sold in compliance with the laws of the state of Nebraska” and the tribe. The reservation has struggled with alcoholism and poverty for generations, despite an alcohol ban in place since 1832. Pine Ridge legalized alcohol in 1970 but restored the ban two months later, and an attempt to allow it in 2004 died after a public outcry. Pine Ridge encompasses some of the nation’s poorest counties. U.S. census statistics place Shannon County, South Dakota, as the third-poorest, with a median household income of $27,300 and nearly half of the population meeting federal poverty standards.

This is one lawsuit worth watching because of the potential impact for thousands of other businesses that are essentially “pouring water on drowning people,” from the sales of alcoholic beverages. Amarillo, Texas in particular is “just under the radar” for a similar lawsuit given the wide array of problems that are not too remote from those of residents of the Pine Ridge Reservation.

Copyright 2012 – L. Arthalia Cravin. All rights Reserved. No part of this commentary may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without written permission from the author.

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