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More colleges are turning off tap for booze advertising

No signs touting Bacardi at the University of Miami. No radio ads plugging cold ones during University of Florida Gators games. No liquor-store fliers promoting keg specials at Florida State University.

In a bid to put a dent in the long-entrenched college tradition of drunken partying, universities are cracking down on campus alcohol marketing and advertising.

'Universities have finally got past the `bad apple' theory -- that it's just a few students,'' said Laurie Leiber, spokeswoman for the Marin Institute, an alcohol industry watchdog group in California. ``They're trying to get away from an alcohol-saturated environment.''

The new mood comes as public awareness of binge drinking on campuses has heightened in recent years. Colleges have come under fire for largely turning a blind eye to abusive drinking on their campuses, often by underage students.

In response, some universities have put the kibosh on alcohol marketing in conjunction with ramping up social programs and other measures to combat the problem.

The University of Miami still has a sign touting Presidente at its stadium -- the last alcohol ad after officials started phasing out signage from Bacardi, Budweiser, Coors and Miller two years ago, said Paul Dee, UM athletic director.

Now fields and arenas feature the logos of Wachovia Bank, Miccosukee Tribe of Indians, Coca-Cola and others. ''Alcohol has been an issue in intercollegiate athletics,'' Dee said. ``We thought it would be best to phase out advertising.''

The University of Florida, which long ago canceled alcohol signage at sports facilities, two years ago stopped accepting alcohol commercials for the radio and TV broadcasts of games. The move meant the loss of about $200,000 in advertising, most of which was borne by Clear Channel and Sun Sports Network, which sell the ads.

"It's been a challenge for them, but they've still been successful in getting new advertisers,'' said Mike Hill, associate athletic director for external affairs.

The Gainesville university also eliminated alcohol event sponsorships. Last winter, the university refused to let country group Rascal Flats, whose tour title sponsor was Coors, mention the brand in ads for the concert or put up banners. The university had to refund $17,000 to promoters to cover the cost of reworking the ads and reimbursing Coors for the loss of promotion.

Florida International University limits alcohol promotion to public-service announcements. 'They're clearly branded but say things like `Drink Responsibly,' '' said spokesman Mark Riordan.

Such moves convey an important signal to students, says Henry Wechsler, director of College Alcohol Studies at the Harvard School of Public Health. 'Signs send a message to students `Welcome to college -- alcohol is king here,' '' he said. ``But taking down signs by itself is not going to change things.''

In fact, despite increased awareness of the issue, the level of binge drinking -- defined as at least five consecutive drinks for men and four for women -- remains at 44 percent of students, the same as in 1993 when Wechsler started surveying student drinking habits. ''It's ingrained,'' he said.

Corporate alcohol marketing is small potatoes at many colleges when compared to marketing by local bars and liquor stores. Putting the squeeze on local advertisers was the strategy at Florida State University with the outlawing of fliers on campus and community meetings with merchants, police and neighbors.

Campus Littered

"These handbills littered the campus uncontrollably in 1999-2000," said Michael Smith, director of FSU's Florida Center for Prevention Research. "They were stapled to trees and poles.''

FSU, once rated one of the nation's top party schools, has instituted a slew of anti-drinking programs, including the policing of off-campus parties and stadium tailgating. The measures have met with success. ''We've had a 22 percent reduction in high-risk drinking as reported by students,'' Smith said.

Alcohol companies say they're sensitive to the issue and add they halted campus marketing efforts some years ago. Now they spend tens of thousands of dollars on programs touting responsible drinking.

Both Coors and Anheuser-Busch said they limit promotions to stadiums and pubs that are licensed to sell alcohol. Research shows that 76 percent of attendees at college sports games are over 21, they said.

"Those are people we're trying to reach," said John Kaestner, vice president of consumer affairs for Anheuser-Busch.

Crucial Time

Colleges' get-tough approach comes at a crucial time for brewers, which have seen sales soften over the past five years due to the resurgence of the cocktail and an aging population that tends to prefer wine and spirits. Men in their 20s and early 30s remain the core beer quaffer, said Gary Hemphill, managing director of Beverage Marketing, a research firm in New York.

Nevertheless, brewers have taken the college drinking problem seriously. ''The beer industry has been pretty aggressive with advertising in terms of moderation, designated drivers and the like,'' Hemphill said. ``They've been out ahead of the curve on that. They'll have to look for places outside colleges where these consumers might go.''

 

Christina Hoag, The Miami Herald. December 12, 2005

Copyright © 2005 Knight Ridder. All rights reserved.