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.