The battle over alcohol marketing and under-age drinking erupted again yesterday, as two significant reports to Congress gave ammunition to each side.
The first report, from the Federal Trade Commission, concluded that the industry does not intentionally market its products to young people. The second, from the National Academy of Sciences, described how alcohol marketing does reach young audiences, and it laid out broad proposals to counter under-age drinking, including potential tax increases and a national ad campaign.
The alcohol industry claimed vindication in the first report but criticized the second.
"The F.T.C. basically said the alcohol and beer industries are doing a pretty good job," said David K. Rehr, president of the National Beer Wholesalers Association in Alexandria, Va. "The N.A.S. has kind of packaged 20-year-old ideas and said this is how we should fight under-age drinking."
Critics of the way alcohol is marketed took the mirror-image view. "The F.T.C. report was pretty much a recitation of the facts the industry provided them," said Jim O'Hara, executive director at the Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth at Georgetown University.
The second report, Mr. O'Hara said, calls for the industry as well as communities and parents to act responsibly and be held accountable. "The report is right on the money there."
The dueling reports were both requested by Congress, and it is not clear how much impact they will have.
But Senator Christopher J. Dodd, Democrat of Connecticut, said in a statement that he would use them to build momentum around efforts to curb under-age drinking. "These aren't just numbers on a page," he said. "They represent real people and real stories showing that under-age drinking is taking a terrible toll on our nation's youth."
The Federal Trade Commission was asked to study the impact on under-age consumers of ads for flavored malt beverages, as well as compliance with the commission's 1999 recommendations for industry self-regulation. What it found, for the most part, were good intentions and proper behavior.
There was no evidence, it said, that big marketers targeted under-age consumers when advertising flavored malt drinks like Smirnoff Ice and Bacardi Silver. The commission also found much improvement in alcohol marketers' efforts to place ads so they reach mostly adults.
In its last report to Congress on self-regulation in 1999, the commission criticized as too weak guidelines intended to restrict alcohol advertising to shows and publications where at least half the audience was over 21.
The new report found that the companies it surveyed complied with the 50-percent rule in nearly every case.
"The F.T.C. concluded that our advertising targets adults, and it says our self-regulation is rigorous and effective," said Frank Coleman, senior vice president and spokesman at the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, a lobbying group for hard-liquor companies.
The Distilled Spirits Council and the Beer Institute, another trade group, said yesterday that it had shifted from the 50-percent rule to a 70-percent rule.
The report gave further comfort to a beer industry that has been criticized this summer for a wave of commercials featuring full-figured twins, raging party scenes and women wrestling in wet cement.
"Despite some conspicuous ad campaigns with juvenile themes," the report said without naming names, marketers regularly adjusted or pulled ads that were deemed to appeal strongly to minors.
Still, the commission found, "a visible minority of beer ads feature concepts that risk appealing to those under 21."
Critics charged that all advertising aimed at young adults, whether for flavored malt beverages or other alcoholic drinks, will spill over into the under-age market, whether or not marketers intend it.
"It's impossible to construct an advertisement that appeals to a 21-year-old, on his 21st birthday, and doesn't appeal to someone who's 18 years old or maybe even 16," said George A. Hacker, director of the Alcohol Policies Project at the Center for Science in the Public Interest in Washington.
What is more, Mr. Hacker said, even a 70-percent rule is too weak, particularly if it does not also take into account the total number of under-age viewers or readers.
With the Super Bowl, for example, "even though the under-age audience is a small proportion, it's still the largest audience of kids for any show ever," he said.
The National Academy of Sciences took the industry the other way with its proposed nationwide strategy to fight under-age drinking. Suggestions included measures like raising taxes on beer, considering alcohol content in movie ratings by the Motion Picture Association of America and regular federal scrutiny of youth exposure to alcohol ads.
The industry has been improving its practices and ought to be rewarded, not threatened with new taxes and regulations, said Marcus Grant, president of the International Center for Alcohol Policies in Washington, a group backed by alcohol companies.
"If people are improving and being encouraged, they tend to continue improving," Mr. Grant said. "It may not be the right time to beat them over the head with a stick."
More studies are on the way, of course. On Friday, the Harvard School of Public Health plans to release a study on the marketing of alcohol to college students. By November, the International Center for Alcohol Policies expects to issue a report looking at under-age drinking on a global basis, and whether legal drinking ages conform with various countries' cultural concepts of adulthood. And in the next few months the Distilled Spirits Council plans to issue an analysis challenging studies released by the Center for Alcohol Marketing and Youth.
Posted on aef.com: September 15, 2003
Nat Ives, The New York Times. September 10, 2003
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