Indian Tribe Sues Big Brewers Over Alcohol Problems

By Jennifer Matesa 02/10/12

An expert tells The Fix what could be done to tackle chronic alcohol-related health problems in Native American reservations.

One in four children born here suffers
from fetal alcohol syndrome or fetal
alcohol spectrum disorder.
Photo via

The Oglala Sioux Nation filed suit against five big American beer makers for $500 million Thursday, to cover the healthcare and social costs of alcohol-related illness in the tribe. The lawsuit names Anheuser-Bush InBev Worldwide, Molson Coors Brewing Company, MillerCoors LLC, SAB Miller and Pabst Brewing Company. Four beer stores in Whiteclay, Nebraska—a town with only a dozen residents that still sold nearly five million cans of beer in 2010—are also targeted. Most of the stores' customers come from the nearby Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota, where alcohol has been banned since 1832, and tribal leaders say the stores and manufacturers are responsible for the reservation’s chronic alcohol abuse. “You cannot sell 4.9 million 12-ounce cans of beer and wash your hands like Pontius Pilate, and say we’ve got nothing to do with it being smuggled,” says Tom White, the lawyer representing the tribe.

The suit specifies that one in four children born on the reservation suffers from fetal alcohol syndrome or fetal alcohol spectrum disorder. It's been documented that Native Americans are prone to alcoholism because, genetically, they have a lower tolerance than other ethnic groups. A 2008 CDC report showed that nearly 12% of deaths among Native Americans are alcohol-related—more than three times the proportion in the general population—with two-thirds of them occurring before the age of 50. Reservation residents have an average life expectancy of between 45 and 52 years—the lowest in North America except for Haiti, the lawsuit adds. The reservation holds some of the nation’s poorest counties, with nearly half of residents living below federal poverty levels.

“Whenever you have people who are hopeless and impoverished and in trouble you’re going to get a lot of substance abuse,” Claire D. Coles, professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at Emory University School of Medicine and Director of the Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders Center of the Marcus Autism Center in Atlanta, Georgia, tells The Fix. Cohen says preventing fetal alcohol spectrum disorder in communities with high alcoholism rates would require early identification of affected children, the training of physicians to identify drinking women during pregnancy, early prenatal care and adequate nutrition, early identification of affected babies at birth, and “support to the males in the family so they’ll support the women in not drinking. All of these things need to be done, and they do help.”

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Jennifer Matesa is a Voice Award Fellow at the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration and is the author of the blog Guinevere Gets Sober. She is the author of several books, including the non-fiction, The Recovering Body, about physical and spiritual fitness for living clean and sober. You can find Jennifer on Linkedin or follow her on Twitter.