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Best of: The Debate Over SUVs

Aired December 25, 2002 - 15:00   ET


ARTHEL NEVILLE, HOST: Hello, everyone. And merry Christmas. I'm Arthel Neville. So glad you could join us for this very special edition of TALKBACK LIVE.

Today is a day we are going to bring to you a second course, of sorts, of some of our favorite interviews and debates from TALKBACK LIVE.

And on this day when so many Christians all around the world are celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ, you have probably heard the phrase: What would Jesus do? Well, what about: What would Jesus drive? That was a hot debate.

Let's take a look.


NEVILLE: Does it make you a better person to drive a fuel- efficient car? And does God care if you drive an SUV?

IAN PUNNETT, RADIO TALK SHOW HOST: Well, I think all religious leaders would agree that God cares what we do. And I think religious leaders, particularly of a Christian stripe, would agree that it's good for the church to challenge its followers on the ways in which they are spending their money.

It's always been a role of the church. It certainly was a role that we see Jesus taking in the New Testament. But the question that Reverend Ball is asking begs an answer. And so, if you're to give an honest appraisal of the question, "What would Jesus drive?" or "Would Jesus drive an SUV?" you'd have to answer that, in many cases, you'd have to say yes.

If the answer was that Jesus would have been fuel-efficient and if he were traveling with many others, if he had a large family, if any of these things were true, you certainly would have to say that would be the right choice for him to make.

NEVILLE: And Jesus does have a large family. We're all his family.

PUNNETT: Well, I mean, if you were even just to look at it in terms of Jesus in a business context, traveling with the 12 disciples, if they were traveling from Galilee to Jerusalem, an SUV makes the most sense.

NEVILLE: Maybe they have dinner plans, Ian?

PUNNETT: Pardon me?

NEVILLE: Maybe they have dinner plans?

PUNNETT: Well, whatever the context is...

NEVILLE: The last supper. You go it.

PUNNETT: ... he would be carpooling. So, I mean, I think that these are all fair ways. If Jesus had a family of four and two of them were in hockey, he'd be driving an SUV. And there's just no shame in saying that.

NEVILLE: OK, listen, we're having fun with this campaign, but I want to go on record and make sure that anybody watching, I am certainly not being blasphemous. I want to make you realize that, OK, coming from a good Christian girl like me.

Listen, everybody, let's see. Bring in Jacob.

When you first see this campaign, though, you kind of start to pull out the jokes. I mean, is this going to be an effective campaign?

JACOB SULLUM, "REASON": I do want to weigh in on this issue of "What would Jesus drive?"

I think, since Jesus was a carpenter, he probably would be driving a pickup truck to haul around his lumber and his tools. And that actually falls into the same category, in terms of emissions and mileage, as the SUVs do, which raises the question that your other guests raised, which is, "What do you mean when you say that you should drive the most fuel-efficient car that truly meets your needs?" which is what one of the leaders of this campaign is urging us to do.

Well, what are your needs? And what does it mean to truly meet them? Obviously, if you're a carpenter and you need to haul around a lot of stuff, then a pickup truck or perhaps a van makes sense. If you have a big family, a minivan or an SUV might makes sense.


SULLUM: I'm sorry?

NEVILLE: Or you live some place where it snows really badly all the time.

SULLUM: And the focus on SUVs is rather puzzling, not just because people tend to forget about the pickup trucks and the minivans, which also fall into this category, but also because, if you look at the whole category of passenger cars and light trucks, they contribute only about 1.5 percent of the world's greenhouse gas emissions. So, you're really talking about a very small part of that problem. And then, if you just look at pollution that comes out of cars, the lion's share of that actually comes from older, poorly maintained cars. The research done by Donald Stedman, who is a chemist at the University of Denver, shows that about 5, 10 percent of cars on the road contribute about half of all the pollution.

So, if these groups really wanted to do something about reducing pollution, they should be urging people to buy new cars, which pollute considerably less than older models, or to fix their current cars. And they be collecting money to help people who have trouble buying new cars or fixing their cars do that, because that's really what you need do if you're serious about making a dent in pollution.

NEVILLE: Well, Jacob, you know what? Reverend Ball is ready. He's joining us now.

And, Reverend, I want to welcome you to the show, first of all.

REV. JIM BALL, EVANGELICAL ENVIRONMENTAL NETWORK: Arthel, it's really great to be with you and your guests.

NEVILLE: That's good.

And we have been speaking about your campaign here. And Jacob Sullum just said that he believes that, if you really wanted to get Americans to do the right thing and help the environment, then you would encourage them to drive new cars, purchase new cars that have better emissions controls, etcetera. But why did you focus on SUVs?

BALL: Well, we're asking the question, "What would Jesus drive?" because we want to help folks understand that transportation is a moral issue.

The impacts of transportation pollution are serious in terms of how they affect our health, especially the health of children, their contribution to global warming, which will have a serious impact on the poor -- and the Bible calls for us to care for the poor -- and our dependence on foreign oil from unstable regions. So, these are all strong, all important moral issues, and so our transportation choices are moral choices.

NEVILLE: Now, Reverend, I'm very familiar with the phrase, "What would Jesus do?," which you're playing off of that, "What would Jesus drive?" But I have to ask you, why this campaign? Because, honestly, sometimes, people who are not inside the circles and who don't understand the reference, it just seems a little bit over the top.

BALL: Well, as evangelical Christians, we are to be asking -- we think that Jesus is alive in our hearts right now. He's not some historical figure. He's alive in our hearts right now. He is our lord. And all of our choices need to be made in terms of his lordship.


BALL: He is the lord of our transportation choices.

NEVILLE: All right, let me get Victor, sir, in here. He's an audience member. And I want to get some everyday folks to chime in.

Go ahead, Victor.

VICTOR: Jesus wouldn't drive at all if he was on this earth today. He would be walking. It doesn't make a difference what he would be driving at all. They're making it a religious thing, rather than what it should be.

NEVILLE: Which is?

VICTOR: You know, the right thing, the ethical thing. They're just playing a religion into it, rather than making it a moral thing.

PUNNETT: Well, if I can, Arthel, I had a professor last year in seminary who did make the moral choice to give up her SUV. And I had a couple of conversations with her about it.

She rather liked her SUV. But she came to the conclusion that she was the only person that was driving it. It was a lot of car. She loved being up that high. She felt much more comfortable on the road. But she felt like she needed to give that up. That was a choice that she made to do that.

Yet, there are plenty of people out there with large families. And I think you would have to say both Jesus and God would call us all to be in communities with our family. You would want them to be in one car. You'd want them to be safe. Minivans are not as safe as SUVs. Smaller cars compacted in are not as safe as SUVs. So it only makes sense.

NEVILLE: OK, Ian, you make some interesting points there.

And I want to go to the streets of New York City, because you know folks in New York, they always have an opinion. Mark Perez (ph) is standing by to share his thoughts on this story.

Mark, can you hear me? Good afternoon. What are you thinking?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes, I can hear you.

What I'm thinking is, when Jesus isn't taking mass transit, he's probably driving a blue Mazda Miata. It's economical and sporty. And he probably doesn't have any kids, anyway. So...

NEVILLE: All right, Mark Perez, thank you very much. Stay bundled up.


NEVILLE: And welcome back, everybody.

We are talking about a new campaign to get people out of their SUVs and into heaven. This ad campaign comes as the administration is talking about requiring SUVs and other light trucks to get better gas mileage. According to "The Wall Street Journal," they say -- or they may be adding 1.5 miles a gallon by 2007.

And, Reverend Ball, so this kind of plays into what your campaign is. Do you wonder, though, if this is too little too late? Or is it about time that Americans start focusing on their oil consumption?

BALL: Well, it's certainly about time for us to consider these issues, especially in light of September 11 and our situation with Iraq.

I think all of us need to reassess in terms of our dependence upon foreign oil from unstable regions. And I think the administration is starting to pay attention to that, that we need to be more energy independent. And a big part of that is to be more fuel-efficient with our cars, trucks and SUVs.

Now, what is reported -- I don't know if the administration has actually formally announced it yet -- is 1.5 miles per gallon for a couple of years.


BALL: If they did it for 15 years, then we would be talking about an important announcement. But what we've heard so far in "The Wall Street Journal," we think there needs to be more done.

NEVILLE: All right, Reverend, thank you.

I'm going to let Beth from Illinois join in on this conversation.

You say what, Beth?

BETH: Well, I'd like to know how much money is being spent on this campaign, because I feel, definitely, the money would be much better spent in our schools educating children about how to take care of the Earth. So I really would like to know how much is being spent on this campaign.

BALL: Well, you'll be -- it's an interesting question. Thank you for it.

In terms of -- now, everybody needs to know that this is a much broader effort than just our, "What Would Jesus Drive?" campaign, that folks from many other religious traditions were here today in Detroit meeting with Mr. Ford. And I don't know the figures in terms of how much money is being spent from the -- with these other traditions in terms of their efforts.

But with our "What Would Jesus Drive?" campaign, in terms of the ads we're running in four states, Iowa, Indiana, Missouri and North Carolina, we've got a big, huge budget of $65,000.

NEVILLE: OK, $65,000. All right, Reverend.

SULLUM: I wonder if I could make a point about raising the fuel- efficiency standards.

NEVILLE: Go ahead.

SULLUM: It's important to recognize that there's a tradeoff in terms of human lives every time you raise fuel-efficiency standards, because what happens is, you make cars lighter. Lighter cars are less safe in crashes. And, in fact...

BALL: That's not true. That's not true at all.

SULLUM: Excuse me.

A study that was done by the Brookings Institution and researchers at Harvard estimated that thousands of people die every year as a result of the current fuel-efficiency standards. So, when you talk about raising fuel-efficiency, you're often talking about making cars less safe.


SULLUM: And that's, of course, one of the things that attracts people to SUVs to begin with...

BALL: That's absolutely not true.

SULLUM: ... is the fact that they're safer in crashes than lighter vehicles are.

BALL: As a matter of fact, SUVs are less safe than other vehicles. If you compare the top four-selling cars to the top four- selling SUVs, SUVs are 25 percent less safe than cars.

SULLUM: Heavier vehicles are safer for the occupants in crashes.

BALL: Yes, and loving our neighbor as ourself means you don't -- you've got to be concerned about the people in the other car.


NEVILLE: Reverend...

BALL: Thank you. Sorry.

NEVILLE: Thank you.



I just wanted to comment that you don't need to waste your $65,000, because the economy is going to dictate that probably fewer people are going to buy SUVs. They're expensive and they do get less gas mileage. So I'm with my fellow person...

NEVILLE: Audience member.

EILEEN: Audience member.

NEVILLE: OK. Thank you, Eileen.

I'm going to go to California now, where Marcilene (ph) is standing by on the telephone.

Go ahead, Marcilene. You're live.

CALLER: Yes, hello.

First of all, all cars and airplanes contribute to the pollution. Secondly, if these were true Christians, they would be preaching on women who have careers and work...

NEVILLE: Excuse me? Wait, wait, wait.

CALLER: .. because if they were more frugal and stayed home, we'd have less cars on the road.


NEVILLE: Marcilene, can you hear me? Apparently, you cannot hear me. What did you just say, ma'am? What did you say, that women who work are what?

CALLER: And have careers. If they were more frugal and stayed at home, we'd have less trouble...

NEVILLE: Marcilene, Marcilene, Marcilene, Marcilene, Marcilene?


NEVILLE: With all due respect, could you do me one favor and check your calendar? You'll see that we are living in 2002.


NEVILLE: Dwayne is speaking up next.

DWAYNE: I think it should come to the automobile manufacturers. I think they spend a lot of money on their lobbyists to make sure that the fuel-efficiency of cars stays where it's at, instead of being raised. There is technology is out that would make SUVs more fuel- efficient. I don't think that people should take a congregation's money and spend it on something that could be kind of frivolous, when they could be putting it on something better.

NEVILLE: I understand your point.


NEVILLE: Go ahead, Reverend.

BALL: Well, if I could speak to that, our money comes from the Energy Foundation. And any time we can get money from other foundations to talk about Jesus, we're going to do that. SULLUM: Well if I can, I'm certainly not going to agree with the caller's position on women. But I do think there are bigger issues here that we could be talking about than SUVs.

NEVILLE: OK, listen, we will talk about those later.

Right now, we have to take a pause. And we've talked about the pros and cons of linking morality to what you drive. Apparently, we've been getting lots of e-mails and phone calls loaded with opinions of what Jesus would really be driving. So I'll share those opinions with you when we come back.


NEVILLE: Welcome back, everybody. I'm Arthel Neville.

We are talking about moral consequences of driving gas-guzzlers. And right now, we want to know what you think Jesus would drive.


JUSTIN: I'd just like to say I think the campaign is a little absurd. And how far are going to they go, to the point: What would Jesus mow his lawn with, a push mower or gas-operated one? I just find it absurd.

NEVILLE: Thank you very much, Justin.

And I want to go back to the streets of New York, where Anna Castillo (ph) is standing.

Anna, I want to hear your thoughts.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I think he would like a Civic.

NEVILLE: A Honda Civic?


NEVILLE: What? OK, Anna, thank you very much.

BALL: I'd like to address the question from the audience.

For us, as evangelical Christians, Jesus Christ is our savior and lord. He's lord over all our lives, all our choices. If certain choices are impacting the health of others, including what we mow our lawn with -- I have an electric mower. We bought that because it creates less pollution. So, yes, I think all of our choices in our lives as Christians should be under the lordship of Christ.

NEVILLE: OK, Reverend, so, may I ask you what kind of car you drive?

BALL: Well, I have a 60-mile commute one way. And I take public transportation the whole way. We bought a house so that it was an easy walk to the train. And then I can take the metro system. NEVILLE: OK.

BALL: And when we need a car, we have a Toyota Prius. It gets over 50 miles per gallon.


BALL: And it's what called a


NEVILLE: A hybrid.

BALL: Yes, it's a hybrid. And it's called a SULEV, super ultra low emission vehicle.

NEVILLE: OK, well, that's good.

And Gail (ph) from Pennsylvania says what?

GAIL: Well, I think people who buy SUVs and say they're safer are pretty selfish, because it might be safer for them, but it's certainly not going to be safer for the person they hit in a regular car.

NEVILLE: Thank you, Gail.

BALL: And it's not even safer for them.

NEVILLE: I want to go back to the streets of New York. I have -- who is standing by there? Brandon.

Brandon, what do you say about all of this?

BRANDON: If Jesus were alive today, I guess he would have to drive a really, really, really long limo, because he's Jesus, after all. So I guess he'd have to travel in style.

NEVILLE: Thank you very much.

And let's see what Ed has to say.

ED: I think you ought to change the name to WWJR, "What would Jesus ride?," because Jesus would ride the transport that the majority of the masses ride, which is public transportation. And it's been proven to be effective in reducing ozone levels and other related environmental hazards in cities with effective mass transportation plans.

BALL: Amen, brother.

NEVILLE: Thank you very much.

OK, listen, Reverend Ball, thank you very much for being here with us today.

BALL: Arthel, it's been great to be with you and your viewers and your guests. Thank you for having us.

NEVILLE: Of course.

And, Jacob Sullum, Ian Punnett, thank you both.


NEVILLE: And coming up next: Are you doing enough to help out with the war on terror? Well, comedian Bill Maher thinks you should be doing more. Why should you listen to him?

Well, find out, as this special edition of TALKBACK LIVE continues after this break.



NEVILLE: And welcome back to this very special edition of TALKBACK LIVE here on Christmas day. I'm Arthel Neville. And I want to ask you, are you doing enough to help out with the war on terror? Well, comedian Bill Maher thinks you should be doing more and he told me what that is. Let's take a listen.


(FIRST LINE) NEVILLE: Of course, during World War II there was a poster that said, "When You Ride Alone, You Ride With Hitler." So I ask you to tell us about the correlation between not carpooling, driving SUVS and supporting terrorists or dictators?

MAHER: Well, right. As you point out, in World War II, this was this great poster, "When You Ride Alone You Ride With Hitler." And at the bottom, it said, "Join a car sharing club today." And if you look at these World War II posters, they were all trying to get citizens to do their part, to pitch in.

The idea back then was that we are all in this war. Not just the guys who go over there and fight in the Army, the Navy, the Marines and Air Force, but the citizens on the home front can do a lot to help the war effort. And it's funny, if you look at those posters back then, Uncle Sam was not afraid to stick his finger in people's chest and say, Hey, buddy, more production. Plant a victory garden, save tin, rationing, whatever it was.

Now this is a very different war, but you know we have the same responsibility as citizens now. We can help. But our government doesn't ask us to help much anymore. What they say is, keep shopping and go see "Cats" again and eat out, and travel.

NEVILLE: Right. And Bill, I want to get to that a little bit later, but right now I want to go ahead and tell everybody that, in fact, your book prompted our question of the day, which is: Should Americans give up their SUVS?

We want to hear from you, of course. We'll take your calls and e-mails at the end of the show. So we want to hear from you then.

And, again, getting back to what you were saying, Bill, that people don't do enough. I know you go after people with flags on their cars saying that, again, they're not doing enough. What should people be doing?

MAHER: Well, I have nothing against the flag on the car. I just think that it doesn't actually help. And when people think that they're actually doing something by doing only something symbolic, yeah that is not a good thing. So that's why the poster we had there says, it's literally the least you could do, and the empty gestures don't win any wars.

And when you put it on an SUV, it is a little ironic, because one of the things people could do is to use less oil and gasoline, because, let's face it, our enemies, al Qaeda, are funded by oil, not by Swedish people. Not by drug users, as the administration would like you to believe.

Obviously, the connection is between Osama bin Laden and his brethren in the oil-producing countries. It's just a bad coincidence that all the oil is under what they consider the holy land. And as long as oil remains our vulnerability -- and it is our vulnerability as long as we're junkies for it -- this is going to go on. And we don't really have to reduce the amount of oil we use by that much to improve our standing a lot.

And let's not forget. Even before terrorism, it was a good idea to use less for environmental reasons.

NEVILLE: Now, is that the kind of thing, those sorts of messages, is that what the government should be telling the average American as to what they could do to fight this war on terror?

MAHER: That's one of the things. I mean, yes, there's obviously the oil connection. That's a big one, but there are many things. I mean there's a lot of posters in this book, and a lot of them have to do with making connections. People, I think, don't make connections between what they can do to actually help.

And when I travel the country, what I find is people want to do something. They're good people. They want to help. They're just not instructed and they don't have those connections made for them.

I heard the president talking the other day again about tax cuts and we're going to have less taxes and make the tax cuts permanent. And we have a poster in the book that shows a policeman, a fireman, an Army guy and a teacher. And at the top, it says, "We say they're our heroes." And at the bottom it says, "But we pay them like chumps."

And people need to make the connections that, when taxes get cut, when there's a lot of tax whining that goes around, the people who wind up paying are the ones at the very bottom of the pay scale. And those are the very ones that we say are our heroes.

NEVILLE: OK. Jonathan (ph) from Massachusetts has something to say.

JONATHAN: I think to say that just because you don't carpool or you're not conserving or you put a flag on your car that you're helping aid Osama bin Laden and terrorism is a little extreme, Mr. Maher.

MAHER: Well, that's why I didn't say that. I didn't say that.

JONATHAN: You pretty much did, though. You pretty much did.

MAHER: Did you read the book?

JONATHAN: No, I haven't had a chance. I'll be sure to pick it up after the show.

MAHER: OK. Well, I didn't say it here, and it doesn't say in the book. So you're saying it. I'm not saying it.

JONATHAN: No, you're saying it. But what I'm saying is that the president and the world leaders -- the leaders of our country have encouraged us to continue with our way of life. To not let terrorism win. I mean if we alter our lifestyle, then they're winning. And...

MAHER: Well, that's exactly the wrong attitude. That is not the attitude they had in World War II. You're attitude is that freedom means you can do whatever you want whenever you want it. And that sacrifice is somehow un-American.

Sacrifice is not un-American, and we should be able to continue with our lifestyle, of course. But the idea that we should also be defensive about our flaws and our weaknesses and our vulnerabilities is ridiculous. Just because our flaws are American doesn't mean that they're good. If we become better people, we win, not them.

JONATHAN: That's one opinion. You know, but we have a great, great, great lifestyle here, and I...

MAHER: Yes, and it's our...

JONATHAN: ... think it should be protected and...

MAHER: Right. It's a great lifestyle that is under attack by terrorists. It's a great lifestyle that's not going to be such a great lifestyle unless we make some fundamental changes.


MAHER: Yeah, I'm for preserving our lifestyle. I'm for doing it in a way where we win this war.

NEVILLE: Bill, we have an e-mail coming in I want to share with everybody right now. It's from Bob in Elkhart, Indiana. He says, "Bill Maher does not live in a snow belt next to a great lake, nor could be pull my boat, my cargo trailer or my utility trailer."

MAHER: Well, yes, I could, and I could do it with my bare hands. I'm in the iron man competition this year. I don't know what that has to do with anything, but you know I'm not for people wholesale change their entire lives. I'm not a communist, I'm not a fascist, I'm not looking to make this country anything than what it already is, the greatest country in the world.

But that doesn't mean that we can't adapt ourselves. That's what successful species do. They evolve a little bit.

NEVILLE: OK, Bill. We have to take a break right now. Federal screeners are set to take over at the nation's airports. We will see what that will mean to travelers after the break. And we'll ask Bill Maher what he thinks about airport security. Stay with us. TALKBACK LIVE continue after this break.



NEVILLE: And welcome back.

Federal screeners must be on duty at all U.S. airports by tomorrow morning. But it appears they've beaten the deadline. CNN's Patty Davis is at Reagan National Airport in Washington -- Patty.

PATTY DAVIS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Arthel, in fact, they did beat that deadline. A big ceremony today here at Reagan National Airport. The transportation secretary, the homeland security chief, announcing, in fact, that federal screeners, 44,000 of those federal passenger screeners are in place at 424 airports across the country. Now, that does not include five.

There are five more airports. And those are Kansas City, San Francisco, Rochester, New York, Tupelo, Mississippi. And there's one more, Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Private screeners are continue there.

The difference, though, this is a test. This is where private screeners have been trained exactly the same way as those federal screeners to see whether or not they can do the job as well. You know they've been subject to a lot of derision over the past year. But we'll see when that test is complete.

Now what is the difference? These federal screeners get 100 hours of training, 40 hours of classroom, 60 hours on the job. The previous private screeners only got four to five hours of training.

Also, other standardized screening process. You're going to see the same kind of screening every single airport that you go to. Now what about delays? The Transportation Security Administration saying today that, in fact, it has been looking at that issue, because it was concerned the increased security might delay passengers, increase the hassle factor, as they call it.

They say it's not happening. Delays across the board, 10 minutes at the most -- Arthel.

NEVILLE: OK. Patty Davis, thank you very much for that report. We now go back to Bill Maher. Bill, I want to ask you, do you feel safer now that the new screeners are in place?

MAHER: You know, I've been traveling an awful lot, because I'm on this book tour. So I'm in airports all the time, and I have been even before this because I do my stand-up comedy act on the road all the time. So I see a lot.

So, I mean, this is just my impression. Don't quote me on this, but it just looks to me like they fired all the black people and hired white people. That's what it looks like.

NEVILLE: So what's up with that?

MAHER: I don't know. I'm just saying, that's what it looks like to me. I don't know if that's true, because I have no statistics. I'm just saying, from somebody who's in airports all the time, that, to me, is the big change.

I don't see any change in security methods. I was in the airport the other day and I get pulled out of line quite a bit, and I very often am like this, and while the wand is going over me, I'm signing an autograph. And I just want to say that, you know, terrorists don't usually sign autographs. I don't know. It's a strange thing.

NEVILLE: So then what should they do differently, Bill? The screeners?

MAHER: Well I'm for profiling. And profiling becomes a very dirty word, because it's one of those words that people associate with something bad. And there is bad profiling. Pulling over black people in expensive cars is wrong profiling.

But profiling is behind all real detective work. There is no police work possible without it. Any nation that has had terrorist attacks in the past, like Israel, of course engages in profiling. And it's funny, when I do my stand-up show, I do it with the posters from this book flashed behind me now.

So when I mention the word profiling, I can hear people in the audience, they get very uncomfortable. But when we show the poster of Osama bin Laden, guy looks like him going through with the grandmother being frisked, people applaud. Yeah. They like the idea.

They understand that we need to do this at the airport. That we need to do this in life, and that it's not being prejudice against Muslim people. It's just that we were attacked, and are still under attack by a specific group of people, and they have, therefore, a certain responsibility, as we do, to protect ourselves.

So it's funny. People are a little two-minded on this.

NEVILLE: When we come back, can a problem drinker drink in moderation? Meet a therapist who says maybe, and hear the debate after this break. TALKBACK LIVE continues in a moment.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I'd like to say hi to my parents in Las Vegas, Nevada, and all of my friends stationed at (UNINTELLIGIBLE).

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Merry Christmas to my family back home all over the United States, from Arkansas, Pennsylvania, and in Virginia. So Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.


NEVILLE: And welcome back, everyone. I'm Arthel Neville.

Most of us have heard of Alcoholics Anonymous, right, and its 12- step program? And for years, it has been generally accepted that in order for an alcoholic to sober up, he or she had to do it for a good, no looking back. But that theory doesn't hold true for our next guest, who says problem drinkers can take back control of their lives, but they can still enjoy a sip or two along the way.

Let's meet Mark Kern, a psychologist with over 25 years of clinical experience helping people overcome alcohol. He is co-author of "Responsible Drinking: A Moderation Management Approach For Problem Drinkers." He is also founder of Addiction Alternatives in Los Angeles.

And also with us is psychologist Michael Nuccitelli, and he is executive director of SLS Health, which treats a variety of psychological and wellness issues. And I want to welcome both of you gentlemen to the show.



NEVILLE: Dr. -- do I need to call you doctors, or do you mind if I call you Mark or Michael?


NEVILLE: All right, Dr. Dr. Kern, I want to start with you. First, if you would -- if you don't want to answer this, you don't have to, but I wanted to know if you have any personal experience with being a problem drinker or an alcoholic?

KERN: Oh, absolutely. That's how I got into this field. I was graduating college with a degree in architecture and a degree in -- I'll call it alcohol problems or drug problems. This comes up -- my work and my -- what I'm trying to do comes out of my very much personal experience and the experience of many others that I've worked with directly.

NEVILLE: I just wanted to get that out front, because you know some people listening to your comments may say, well, what does he know, he doesn't have a problem, he's never had to deal with it. In the meantime, let me go ahead and slide into this next question, which is, what is responsible drinking and who is this program designed for? KERN: Well, earlier you spoke of a problem drinker versus an alcoholic. This is for early-stage problem drinkers, people that have under 10 years of problems with alcohol. There's generally been no significant biological problems due to the alcohol use, no legal problems, no sort of social complications. These are not hard-bottom alcoholics. This is early stage problem drinkers we would call them.

NEVILLE: Well then how do you know the difference, sir?

KERN: That's really a very difficult question. And even the medical establishment isn't quite sure. Most people really -- I don't really believe that as many people that we talk about as alcoholics are really alcoholics. They're really problem drinkers, but we don't have any interventions that are appropriate, that are for anything less than the most severe problematic drinkers.

NEVILLE: OK. Then I'm going to bring in Dr. Nuccitelli and ask you, what do you think about this notion of kind of going half way? You can be a responsible drinker? I mean, this doesn't work for many people. They can't -- it's either all or nothing for many people.

MICHAEL NUCCITELLI, PSYCHOLOGIST: Yes, good afternoon. First and foremost, no disrespect to the good doctor, and I'm sure his intentions are genuine and good, but quite frankly, his philosophy is preposterous. To assume that a problem drinker, whether they're in early stages or not, can they go to indulge into social use? It is literally impossible, and it seems that...

KERN: I question of where you come up with that preposterous notion. That is not the reality. I was sitting out in the waiting room for this and there was a young lady who said that she had a problem and she has resumed non-problematic drinking. Your notions of this all being a black and white phenomena is more preposterous than what you're calling my thinking or the moderation management approach.

NEVILLE: Listen, I have David (ph) here. David (ph), who was kind enough to tell us in the break that you've been sober for ten years. Congratulations. That's great.

DAVID: Thank you.

NEVILLE: Yes. Very good. And what do you think about this notion?

DAVID: Well, I've been drinking -- I'd been drinking close to 35 to 40 years. And it came from an experience for me, and I would have to say that treatment was one of the main factors in me getting this thing right. There is no miraculous care; there's no book that's going to be able to cure me. What I need is a strong support system around me at all times.

NEVILLE: And you still go AA meetings?

DAVID: That's correct. In fact, I'm going on circuit and I'll be targeting youth and helping them. NEVILLE: Good. And you know, I ask you, you know, I don't -- I personally don't think that you can have, you know, one sip of this. I don't think that works for people in your situation.

DAVID: I think he has to be careful with his book, because what he's doing, he's sending a strong message to our youth and saying that it's OK to drink.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Most certainly.

NEVILLE: Listen, Brett (ph) -- thank you, sir, very much for sharing your story. And Brett (ph), I know you're on the line. You want to share your story with us. I'll get to you after the break.

What do you think about Marc's alternative to AA? Give me a call or e-mail me right now and we'll continue this discussion after the break. TALKBACK LIVE continues in a moment.



NEVILLE: And welcome back, everybody. We're talking about a treatment for problem drinkers that does not require abstinence. And I want to now to Oregon where Brett (ph) is standing on the phone with your comment. Go ahead, Brett (ph).

BRETT: You know, there's that old question, if a tree falls in the forest and there's no one there to hear it does it make a sound? And I guess I kind of twist that around for this scenario and say, if an alcoholic can drink in moderation, was he ever really an alcoholic? I've been clean and sober for 12 years and to me the key was admitting that I had a problem and then trying to find a spiritual path in my life. And I think that kind of clouding the problem by suggesting that perhaps you could drink in moderation as long as it doesn't hurt some people.

That being said, I will say that whatever works for you. If you think you have a problem and you think you can use moderation to your benefit, then whatever works for you, but I definitely have my doubts.

NEVILLE: Thank you, Brett (ph), for calling in. And I have Matt (ph) here from California in the audience.

MATT: Yes, my question is, what is it about our society that makes us prone to binge drinking?

NEVILLE: Dr. Nuccitelli, will you answer that, please?

NUCCITELLI: Sure. I mean bingeing is one part of an alcoholic pattern. There are many different ways that the alcoholic uses, consumes and abuses alcohol.

But my question is, is to the doctor. Doc, you and I are both doctors of psychology, we're addiction experts. Let me ask you, the alcoholic right now that is watching this show, the problem drinker that's going to go out and purchase your book, how many of them do you think right now are going to go out and now are justified in their drinking?

KERN: Well, first of all, I think it's important to differentiate again between a problem alcoholic. This program is not for an alcoholic. Do not go off your abstinence course and try moderation. I'm rather appealing to people who are out there drinking. I want you to take look at your drinking...

NUCCITELLI: How do you define problem drinking, sir?

KERN: Well, how do you define an alcoholic? I can't ask a college drinker, like we were speaking of a moment ago, who binges. I can't define him as an alcoholic. But moderation management, the program, will lend a stepping-stone to abstinence. That's our whole -- we're not trying to get people from abstinence back into drinking, but rather the other way around. Because you'd have more people into treatment.

NEVILLE: Let me...

NUCCITELLI: Any longitudinal data, any research, anything supporting your notion of this theory? Or is this an idea you came up with?

KERN: No. Come on, you're a professional, you've read the literature. You know that most -- less than 10 percent of people who are alcoholics enter treatment. We're trying to get more people into treatment than perhaps the standard black and white notion that you are continually offering and have been offering the last 50 years. We are trying to get people into to treatment, not scare them away with your hysteria.

NEVILLE: Listen, Mark (ph) from Georgia, what do you say?

MARK: Well, I mean, I drink four to five time as week. I'm 23 years old, I'm having a good time. If you can live that lifestyle, you can live that lifestyle. But I don't think there's any reason for anybody to think that I'm a problem drinker. I mean, I do it, I have fun. But it's not like I'm hurting myself that badly. Everything I've read about the liver, you can cure it by...

NEVILLE: But see -- I'm out of time. But Dr. Nuccitelli, how do you know if you're a problem drinker, quickly?

NUCCITELLI: Get professional help. The easiest way to know if you're a problem drinker is, do you suffer negative consequences from the usage? If you suffer one consequence, whatever that may be, you're a problem drinker.

NEVILLE: OK. Marc Kern and Michael Nuccitelli, thank you very much for joining us here today on TALKBACK LIVE.

Well, that's all the time we have for this show today. Thanks so much for joining us. Merry Christmas, everyone. I'm Arthel Neville. Enjoy the rest of your holiday, and don't forget TALKBACK LIVE is back tomorrow 3:00 Eastern, 12:00 Pacific.


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