Tribe sues beer makers over alcoholism

Whose fault is the high rate of alcoholism on Indian reservations?

The Oglala Sioux Tribe of South Dakota today filed suit against beer makers, seeking $500 million in damages for the cost of health care, social services and child rehabilitation caused by alcoholism.

The AP reports:


The lawsuit alleges that the beer makers and stores sold to Pine Ridge’s Indian population, knowing they would smuggle the alcohol into the reservation to drink or resell. 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, tribal officials allege in the lawsuit.

The Connecticut-sized 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.

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.

  • Jim Shapiro

    They’ve got a chance to win, if they go for reckless endangerment.

    I hope they do.

  • John P II

    So many headlines are emphasizing that beer makers are included in the lawsuit. I think it’s helpful to first look at the 4 liquor stores in a community of 14 people (Whiteclay, NE) selling HUGE volumes of alcohol. Then work backwards to look at distributors, liquor licensing requirements, and the giant breweries. There’s a very deliberate (and profitable and taxable) effort made to knowingly undermine the reservation’s prohibition on alcohol importation.

  • CHS

    Alcoholism is a scourge among the Native community as a whole, and desperately so here, and I’m all for them trying to find ways to combat the issue. Unfortunately this isn’t a good way to do it.

    Alcohol sales and distribution is regulated by the Federal and then State governments, they are the ones who have the ability to control or influence the sale of alcohol near the reservation. If Budweiser opened stores themselves to sell direct it would be different, but they can’t. So why go after the beer makers? Why not sue the stores or distributors (or even better, the state) to block the sale of alcohol at points near the reservation? If the distributors are selling “more than legally allowed” in Nebraska then why not sue them? Wouldn’t that be a better way to control the influence of alcohol within the reservation?

    The reservation has no meaningful income through tribal gaming or leasing rights, and 80% of the residents are unemployed. This suit is going after the deepest pockets they can to attempt to solve one of the reservations biggest problems, poverty, not alcoholism.

    I hope that some meaningful way to help the reservation is agreed, just seems like a poor way to start the process.

  • John P II

    CHS – the tribe IS suing the local retailers and the distributors, in addition to the breweries. I wasn’t clear about that in my previous comment.

  • Dave S.

    Boy, there are a lot of questions raised here regarding who’s responsible for what.

    1) Are the Natives individually responsible for whether they consume alcohol and for how much they consume? I understand that alcoholism is rampant among the Native population, but the rest of the country learned that Prohibition doesn’t work.

    2) If the Natives want a ban on alcohol, then are they responsible for better enforcement?

    3) Are the retailers responsible for applying additional criteria for deciding which customers of legal drinking age they will sell to? You’d like to think they’d have a hard time sleeping at night knowing what they’re doing, but they’re obviously very happy profiting from the misery on the reservation. To a lesser extent, the same question applies to liquor retailers everywhere, though. They all sell to alcoholics.

    4) Is the government responsible for prohibiting sales of alcohol within a certain radius of the reservation? Is that fair to the people outside the reservation? Won’t that just make the Natives drive farther to get what they want?

    There are no easy answers here, and I don’t think the lawsuit is the answer either. If they win, however, they need to be very thoughtful about how the money gets used. How could a windfall be used to address the root cause of the poverty?

  • CHS

    John P II, thanks for the clarification. I’m glad that they are pursuing a full scale effort if there really has been that kind of top to bottom activity. I’ll be very curious to see how this plays out, and as Dave S. points out, if they do receive this windfall it will be quite important to see how this gets used.

  • CHS

    John P II, thanks for the clarification. I’m glad that they are pursuing a full scale effort if there really has been that kind of top to bottom activity. I’ll be very curious to see how this plays out, and as Dave S. points out, if they do receive this windfall it will be quite important to see how this gets used.

  • Michael Fry

    Though I feel for the group adversely affected by the product being sold, and for anyone suffering from addiction, I really don’t think that the problem rests on the shoulders of the manufacturers, distributors, and sales outlets.

    To me, this lawsuit is akin to Fat People v. McDonalds. Granted, McDonalds food isn’t physically addictive (though some might argue otherwise), but the chain of responsibility sure seems the same. A basic rule of human behavior is that a person is responsible for his or her own actions. Yes, advertising may be good and compulsions hard to control, but one’s actions are still one’s own.

    It does seem to me, though, that liquor manufacturers and importers could do a lot of good (and get a lot of good press) by promoting and helping to fund programs to assist people trying to give up alcohol. And I don’t mean donations to AA. According to their seventh tradition, AA doesn’t accept outside funding. I’m talking about direct involvement. (Also, especially in a community in which uncontrolled alcoholism is so prevalent, sponsors would be rather hard to come by.) If a program doesn’t exist, do some research in to what might work and create something. Don’t some of the big tobacco producers sponsor programs to help people kick the smoking habit? To me, it just seems like a socially responsible (or, at least, socially friendly) thing to do.

  • Bob Collins

    // is akin to Fat People v. McDonalds.

    I was thinking “State of Minnesota v. Phillip Morris.”