Alcohol advertising feeds kids a big lie

By Dr. Jason Eberhart-Phillips -
Sacramento Bee

May 3, 2007

Ask the teens and pre-teens in your house about their favorite television commercials, and chances are good that they will mention at least one ad for beer or other alcoholic drinks.

Many of the 250,000 alcohol ads shown on TV each year feature what most 10- to 17-year-olds like best in commercials: humor and music. It's no wonder that after every Super Bowl, polls show viewers younger than 17 prefer commercials for beer to any other product.

The alcohol industry has certainly done a good job in entertaining our kids, but a new report from the U.S. surgeon general suggests that the forceful marketing of alcohol today also may be fueling an epidemic of binge drinking among American adolescents.

The evidence that many young people are drinking too much is everywhere, from vandalism in a park near you, to the assaults investigated by local police, to the obituaries in this newspaper. Every day, three teens in the United States die from drinking and driving, and at least six more die from other alcohol-related causes.

Unlike adults, most kids drink to get drunk. Binge drinking -- having five or more drinks on one occasion -- affects one in five youths ages 12 to 20. Alcohol far exceeds marijuana, tobacco or any other substance as the drug of choice among America's youths today.

Adolescence is a time of life marked by increased risk-taking, sensation-seeking and downright erratic behavior in the best circumstances. For some young people, alcohol can have a special allure during this period. But as the surgeon general report indicates, "This attraction occurs at the very time adolescents may not be fully prepared to anticipate all the effects of drinking alcohol."

Those effects include dramatically increased risks of academic failure, unprotected sexual activity, illicit drug use and permanent insults to the developing brain. Underage drinking also affects nondrinkers who are exposed to violence, property destruction and unruly behavior. Underage alcohol abuse costs the U.S. economy at least $53 billion each year. Now evidence is starting to mount that the widespread advertising of alcohol is partly to blame. Such marketing -- thought to cost $5 billion or more each year -- may promote a positive perception of alcohol in ways that affirm an adolescent's decision to drink.

One recent study of magazine ads shows that as a magazine's youth readership increases, so does the number of ads for beer and distilled spirits. For every million additional readers ages 12 to 19, beer advertising increases by 60 percent, while ads for distilled spirits rise by 30 percent.

Another study shows that drinking increases on average by 1 percent among youths for every alcohol commercial they view each month above the average number seen by their age group. That study also finds that young people drink 3 percent more for every dollar the alcohol industry spends per capita on advertising in local media markets.

For most parents of adolescents, none of this is surprising. A recent poll of more than 800 randomly selected parents of children ages 12 to 17 reports that 66 percent believe that exposure to alcohol advertising makes teens more likely to drink.

Alcohol advertising is feeding our youths a big lie. Tobacco advertising was banned from television in 1971 for the protection of children. Parents are right to ask when our policy makers will take meaningful action to limit the appalling marketing of alcohol to kids.