By Maia Szalavitz
Every so often, controversy arises over a particular ad that appears to encourage children to drink alcohol. Anti-alcohol advocacy groups - notably the Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth (CAMY), the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA), and the Center on Alcohol Advertising - are often involved in these controversies with reports on what they see as egregious ads or trends.
Probably the best known example was a 1996 survey by the Center on Alcohol Advertising which showed that the Budweiser frogs were recognized by almost as many kids as Bugs Bunny a year after they were introduced.Such findings would appear to bolster calls for a crackdown on the way that alcohol is marketed; yet research on the effects of alcohol advertising on youth has not shown that advertising has much of an impact on teen drinking.
At least, this is the conclusion reached by a number of reviews of evidence, including the 10th Special Report to Congress on Alcohol and Health by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) in June 2000. Nevertheless, the multitude of factors involved in trying to measure the effect of advertising on alcohol consumption makes this a complex and difficult issue to study. Despite the large body of research available, the data is often contradictory and confusing.
In order to know where current research stands and how to make sense of the problem, it is helpful to break down the different types of research as follows (This is the approach taken by the NIAAA study):
One study surveyed 500 New Zealanders aged 10-17 about their responses to beer commercial . The more the kids said they liked the ads, the more often they said they intended to drink at age 20. However, the correlation between liking alcohol ads and actual drinking behavior was not great enough to be statistically significant. Other survey research found that the more teens judged as being at high risk for alcohol problems identified with the situations in the alcohol ads, the more likely they were to think positively about drinking.
However, some econometric analyses have found effects: A 1997 study looked at the relationship between automobile fatalities and the amount of alcohol advertising in the top 75 American media markets . It found a correlation between alcohol advertising and both total and nighttime crash deaths (the latter are particularly likely to be alcohol-linked). The study concluded that a total ban on alcohol advertising might save 5,000 to 10,000 lives a year. Since the number of alcohol-related auto fatalities has totaled about 17,000 annually since 1995, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, and since the study's findings are not consistent with the rest of the literature, such figures probably overestimate the impact of a total advertising ban.
For example education could have already deterred the most easily affected youth and left a core group that is much harder to influence (About 40% of crash deaths caused by adult drivers are alcohol-related; for youths, the proportion is about 20%) .
Another econometric analysis that found connections between youth drinking and advertising was published as a working paper for the National Bureau of Economic Research in May 2003. It looked for correlations between data from two major national youth surveys: Monitoring the Future (which samples 63,000 high school students) and The National Longitudinal Survey of Youth Behavior conducted by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and alcohol advertising in local markets as compiled by Competitive Media Reporting. The data used were from the years 1996-98. The study concluded that eliminating alcohol advertising completely would reduce the proportion of adolescents who drink each month from 25% to 21%. More significantly, the study claimed that a total ad ban would reduce the population of teen binge drinkers from 12% of adolescents to seven percent.
An international study also supported the idea that advertising restrictions can help. It looked at alcohol abuse in 17 different countries. The research examined the connection between restrictions on TV and radio advertising and both consumption rates and driving fatalities. The study found that alcohol consumption was lowered by 16% and traffic deaths by 10% in countries with the greatest restrictions on TV and radio ads. But this relationship was confounded by the fact that the countries that adopted such advertising restrictions started out with lower rates of alcohol problems and deeper anti-alcohol attitudes among their populations.
And studies of advertising bans carried out in the real world have shown that they have little or nor impact on consumption. For example, research on three different provinces of Canada - British Columbia, Manitoba and Saskatchewan - that banned alcohol ads at three different times did not find reductions in drinking . It is possible, however, that these results were contaminated by exposure to alcohol ads on American television, which remained during the Canadian bans.
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