Research shows that most alcoholics began drinking during their teen years. Even more disturbingly, almost half already met the disease’s diagnostic criteria by their 21st birthdays.
Peer pressure — and the urge to feel grown up — play big roles in this, obviously. But scientists increasingly point to another factor: TV advertising that associates drinking with living the good life.
Despite claims otherwise by the beer and liquor companies, this advertising almost exclusively targets young people. “Get them early” seems to be the unspoken logic of the alcohol retailers. Advertising campaigns draw explicit connections between drinking and excitement, romance, adventure, success in sports, eternal vigor and youth, and everything else that an adolescent ready to enter the adult world could ever possibly hope to find.
The question needs to be asked: Should TV ban alcohol advertising?
The case for the prosecution
Because beer commercials and other types of TV advertisements for alcohol products target young impressionable minds, most of which belong to those who are not old enough to drink legally, it has been argued that a ban on such advertisements could be sanctified by an appeal to the greater good. Even though it may be possible for older adults to drink responsibly and legally, this line of reasoning goes, younger people often don’t. So a ban on alcohol advertising — targeted as it is at the teen and young adult set — is entirely justifiable.
While we should never tread lightly upon free speech, the spirit of the First Amendment has limits. It doesn’t permit crying ‘fire!’ in a crowded theater, for example, and perhaps more relevantly, we’ve already banned TV tobacco ads, thanks to the Surgeon General’s damning report about the health effects of smoking.
While the issue remains somewhat controversial, a number of research projects have now established a connection between exposure to alcohol advertising and increased youth drinking.
- A 2012 report by the Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center that found those between the ages of 15 and 20 who showed a great familiarity with the content of TV commercials for alcohol products were much more likely to drink, and drink to excess than their peers.
- A comprehensive 2009 Oxford Brookes University review of the existing literature on the question, sponsored by the Alcohol and Education Research Council, demonstrated a clear connection between heavier drinking in youth and exposure to alcohol ads on television and in magazines. (A link between the use of alcohol products in movies and elevated levels of youth drinking was also found.)
- The Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine published a 2006 study showing a direct correlation between the number of TV ads a young person sees and the amount of alcohol they drink. This same study also found that in particular TV markets, for each extra dollar invested per capita in advertising by the retailers of alcohol products (in comparison to the national average), the level of youth drinking increased by 3%.
- An article published in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol in 2006, in which researchers who had studied a number of possible remedies for youth drinking concluded that by far the most effective way to reduce premature alcohol-related deaths among this age group was to institute a complete ban on all advertising for alcohol products. The authors of the article claimed that such an action would result in 7,609 fewer deaths from harmful drinking each year and a 16.4% reduction in life years lost to alcohol-related causes.
This is actually just a brief sampling of the numerous studies establishing links between alcohol-related TV commercials and increased levels of youth drinking. No such connections have been found among older drinkers. Perhaps this is why so much effort has been put into marketing alcohol to younger people whose drinking habits are still in flux?
Of course, alcohol retailers and manufacturers maintain that their advertisements persuade adult drinkers to choose one brand over another. But they glamorize drinking, first and foremost, and such appeals hit home hardest among people new to alcohol.
Should we allow alcohol advertising?
There seems little doubt that prohibiting alcohol advertising on TV would reduce the overall amount of youth-drinking in the United States. But such a ban would cost television networks a serious amount of revenue, and it would challenge the spirit of the First Amendment to at least some extent.
Whether or not a ban would be politically feasible is unclear. But the arguments in favor of it are strong, and perhaps our collective concern over the future of our youth will someday overcome the forces aligned against a ban on alcohol-related TV advertising.
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Everywhere we go, we’re bombarded by all sorts of advertisements. We can seldom go through one day without receiving at least one phone call from a telemarketer. Turn on the TV for 15 or 20 minutes and you’ll see at least one 5-minute commercial break. Advertisements are abundant everywhere we go: alongside roads, at airports, and at train stations. Why is advertising so popular, why do so many companies pump millions of dollars each year into advertising? The answer is simple: ads inform people of products they otherwise wouldn’t have heard of, they make products look appealing to so that people will buy them, and they allow advertisers to influence the general public to purchase their product. Generally speaking, this isn’t a problem – companies make money and people get the products they need and want. What about products, though, that hurt, rather than help, people, products such as alcohol? Should advertising of such products, products that give way to so much harm, be allowed?
The biggest argument for the banning of advertising for alcoholic beverages points out the strong negative effects of alcohol on our society and the problems associated with alcohol. Alcoholism is a disease. According to the government-run NIAAA, or the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, alcoholism has a few easy to recognize symptoms. First of all, alcoholics have an addiction to alcohol. They constantly have a desire to consume more alcohol. This strong desire for alcohol leads to a loss of control. Rather than choosing when to drink and limiting the amount of alcohol consumption, alcoholics are controlled by their alcoholism. This desire is often overwhelming in nature and takes first priority in an alcoholic’s life, even over such things as family, career, and so forth. The loss of control ties in closely with physical dependence on alcohol – if, by whatever means, the alcoholic attempts to quit, he or she experiences withdrawal symptoms. As an alcoholic continues to drink more and more and become increasingly dependent on alcohol, he or she gains tolerance to alcohol – in order to get drunk, the alcoholic must consume more alcohol.
An explanation of alcoholism is not enough to persuade most people to ban alcohol advertising. Most fail to recognize the vast amount of people that alcoholism and other alcohol related problems effect. Many studies have been done and many statistics have been gathered to show the grim reality of alcohol-related problems. In the United States, there are 100,000 alcohol-related deaths each year, which puts it at slot number three in the list of the top causes of preventable death in the nation. Approximately two-thirds of domestic violence and sexual assaults involve alcohol in one way or another and one-half of all murders in the nation involve alcohol. Among the nation’s high school students, 81% have used alcohol at least once, and 30% have had five or more drinks in a row in the past two weeks. High school students (underage) drink 35% of all wine coolers sold in the United States. On average, a person’s first drink of alcohol takes place at the age of 13. Twenty-one percent of all the nation’s tenth graders and eight percent of the nation’s eighth graders have been drunk in the past month. (FamilyFun).
What role does alcohol advertising play, though, in these high rates? Does alcohol advertising really play a role in alcoholism, in underage drinking, in DUIs, cirrhosis of the liver, and other alcohol related problems? Professor David J. Hanson, Ph.D. comments on his web site about alcohol-related problems, “There is no solid evidence from either scientific research or practical experience that this theory [that ‘Advertising increases alcohol consumption, which increases alcohol abuse’] of advertising is correct” and proceeds to show all the evidence he found to support that statement. Regardless of any evidence that anyone has either in support of or in opposition to alcohol advertising, no one can say for certainty, no study can be done to explain exactly how much advertising effects us. Does that mean alcohol advertising should be allowed, though? Most definitely not. The abuse of alcohol brings about a whole slew of problems, as has been shown, all of which are detrimental to the user’s health and the health of others around them. Do television commercials show these bad effects? No…they make alcohol consumption look appealing, fun, cool, and harmless, when in fact none of these words properly describes the effects of alcohol. Advertisers poke fun at something very serious; they make money off of others’ misfortunes.
Regardless of any uncertainty surrounding the direct effects of alcohol advertisements on viewers, one certainty exists. Many states currently have laws prohibiting alcohol advertisements to be shown in environments geared specifically toward children. For example, Budweiser could not advertise their beer on “The Bugs Bunny and Tweety Show,” but they ARE allowed to advertise their products on sporting events and other television shows. Allowing companies to act as such fails to take into account the fact that many children watch TV shows that are break every ten or fifteen minutes for a commercial break that contains alcohol advertisements. I, for one, began watching baseball games on a regular basis around the age of 6 or 7. When Budweiser came out with their series of commercials featuring the frogs that croaked, “Bud,” “weis,” and “er,” I recall the phrase becoming very popular, very quickly amongst my classmates. A year after Budweiser came out with this series of commercials, children between the ages of 9 and 11 were more acquainted with Budweiser’s rendition of the phrase “Bud” “weis” “er” than they were with Tony the Tiger, the Power Rangers, and Smokey the Bear (Mediascope). Why did children know the Budweiser phrase better than these other popular children’s characters? The answer is simple: Budweiser made an impression on them, while the friendlier, less harmful characters did not. If companies cannot advertise alcoholic products for shows geared for kids, what sense is there in allowing such ads to be displayed on shows that are geared for anyone, shows that anyone, including millions of children, can and will enjoy?
In order to gain insight on the issue, I discussed it with a few adults. First, I talked with the pastor at my church, Rev. Dr. David Balla. He pointed out a study that was just released February 25, 2003. This study showed that problem drinkers – those who abuse alcohol and those who drink while under age – consume 50% of all the alcohol that is consumed in the country. For this reason, in addition to the problems that can come about from alcohol abuse, Pastor Balla agrees with my position and opposes alcohol advertisements.
In addition to my pastor, I discussed this issue with my mom. She mentioned many of the arguments I have presented, but focused especially on the influence she believes commercials have on those who view them. She pointed out that alcohol commercials often make drinking look like the “adult” thing to do and that you can only be cool if you drink alcohol. Additionally, she touched on the fact that many people who wouldn’t otherwise drink, do because of the strong influence of, the lure of alcohol commercials.
Few remember the days when cigarette advertisements were legal…smoking was popular and very common amongst people of all different ages. Now, after cigarette advertisements have been banned and the harmful effects of tobacco are well known, smoking is no longer the popular thing; people are often looked down upon for it. We can accomplish the same with alcohol abuse.
“Alcoholism is a Family Disease.” FamilyFun. (Online). Available http://family.go.com/yourtime/relationships/feature/kypa107alcohol/kypa107alcohol.html, February 25, 2003.
“Frequently Asked Questions – Alcohol.” National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (Online). Available http://www.niaaa.nih.gov/faq/q-a-text.htm, February 25, 2003.
Hanson, Prof. David J., Ph.D. “Alcohol Advertising.” Alcohol: Problems and Solutions. (Online). Available http://www2.potsdam.edu/alcohol-info/Advertising/Advertising.html, February 25, 2003.
Youth-Oriented Alcohol Advertising . 1997. Issue Briefs. Studio City, Calif.: Mediascope Press. Also available online at http://mediascope.org/pubs/ibriefs/yoaa.htm, February 25, 2003.