Young people see more television commercials for alcoholic beverages than they do for jeans, sneakers or acne creams, according to a new study from a health policy group.
Although brewers and distillers say their television pitches are aimed at those age 21 and older, teenagers are receiving a disproportionate share of those messages, said the report from the Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth at Georgetown University. Of the 208,909 alcohol commercials on television in 2001 studied by the researchers, they found that nearly a quarter were more likely to be seen by teenagers than by adults, despite the voluntary guidelines minimizing the number of ads viewed by minors.
The analysis of the $811 million in alcohol advertising bought for television by the makers of beer, malt beverages (including so-called "malternatives" like Mike's Hard Lemonade) and other alcoholic drinks found that 12- to 20-year-olds saw more commercials for those products than for many products marketed directly to young people, including gum, chips and juice. The average young person saw 245 alcohol ads in 2001, the researchers found.
"No one is policing what the industry is doing, and the industry is in denial," said David A. Kessler, dean of the School of Medicine at Yale and former commissioner of the United States Food and Drug Administration. Dr. Kessler is an adviser to the center.
The beer industry responded quickly, and heatedly. "We do not condone illegal under-age drinking under any circumstances," said Jeff Becker, president of the Beer Institute. "This industry does not, and never has, targeted our advertising to people who can't legally buy our products."
The industry has agreed to voluntary guidelines that restrict advertising when at least half of a program's audience is under age. But the researchers found that even that 50 percent line was crossed by 3,262 commercials that appeared during shows like "Saturday Night Live."
"The guidelines of the industry are bogus," said Jim O'Hara, the executive director of the center. "These standards do not protect youth from exposure and overexposure to alcohol advertising and marketing."
Alcohol ads appeared during 13 of the 15 most popular shows among teenagers, including "Seventh Heaven" and "Gilmore Girls " on WB, the report found, though more such ads were on shows popular among both teenagers and adults, like "Friends," "E.R." and sporting events.
The new report does not conclude that advertising alone causes minors to drink. The authors quote the findings of a 1999 report from the Federal Trade Commission, which stated that "while many factors may influence an under-age person's drinking decisions, including among other things, parents, peers and media, there is reason to believe that advertising also plays a role."
The center has also presented the report to the commission, asking it to look again at the advertising guidelines. In the 1999 report, the commission recommended that companies not advertise on programs with an under-age audience of more than 35 percent, or even 25 percent.
Under-age drinking has received increased attention in recent years, with spikes in interest corresponding to particularly gruesome drinking-related deaths and tales of high school binge-drinking parties. A study released earlier this year by the Justice Department found that 25 percent of 15- to 17-year-olds surveyed said that they were drinkers, and 65 percent of that group said that they had had at least one episode of consuming five or more drinks.
Still, the report comes at a moment when overall teenage drinking rates are actually declining. On Monday, the results of the annual Monitoring the Future survey by the University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research were announced, with a substantial drop in alcohol use by teenagers. The proportion of eighth graders who said they had consumed alcohol in the last 30 days fell from a high of 26 percent in 1996 to 20 percent by 2002; from 2001 to 2002 alone, the proportion of 10th graders who said they had drunk alcohol in the last 30 days dropped from 39 percent to 35 percent.
"It is good that the numbers are dropping," Dr. Kessler said. "They need to continue to drop."
Mr. Becker, the head of the beer trade group, pointed to the Michigan figures while saying his institute was fighting under-age drinking effectively. Those tactics include, he said, investing in alcohol education campaigns for children and parents; promoting programs to train cashiers, waiters and bartenders to check ID's; and working with the authorities to enforce existing laws prohibiting under-age drinking.
"Sadly, diverting attention to issues like advertising doesn't help when we are trying to engage parents" to discourage their children from drinking, he said. In a statement, he said: "The way to address illegal under-age drinking is to encourage others to get behind programs that are working, instead of wasting valuable time censoring advertising to adults of legal drinking age."
Mr. O'Hara said that his organization's purpose was not to call for censorship. "We feel the first thing is to get the data out, and then have a vigorous public policy debate about what are the appropriate public health protections for our youth to reduce under-age drinking," he said.
The new report is the second from the center, which is supported by grants from the Pew Charitable Trusts and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The first report criticized the magazine-advertising practices of the alcoholic beverage industry.
The gathering storm over under-age drinking resembles a previous fight over under-age smoking during the Clinton administration when Dr. Kessler, as commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, led efforts to limit the marketing and sale of tobacco products to minors. At the time, Mr. O'Hara was chief spokesman for the agency. Dr. Kessler's efforts to regulate tobacco advertising were turned aside by the United States Supreme Court.
This time, however, there is no crusading government official leading the charge. "We clearly believe the self-regulation of the industry isn't working," Mr. O'Hara said. "We clearly believe there is no one in the federal government who is providing a watchdog role here."
John Schw, The New York Times. December 18, 2002
Copyright © 2002 The New York Times Company. All rights reserved.