Lessons From Successful Anti-Smoking Campaigns
Again, counter-intuitively, adults seem to be more affected by anti-alcohol and other anti-drug public service announcements than adolescents. This may result from the fact that many such ads use fear as a tactic, which is far more effective with adults than youth .
Essentially, this research shows that young people "don't think it will happen to me." Like adults, they are genuinely shocked and dismayed by horrifying images of auto accidents, overdose victims and smokers with artificial voiceboxes. Like adults, they are able to recall ads that feature such images. Yet none of this seems to influence their behavior. While most adults have learned from painful experience that they are not immune to negative consequences, youth tend to feel invulnerable (and may need to maintain these feelings in order to accomplish their developmental goals of leaving their family nest.)
This doesn't mean that teens are impervious to anti-drinking messages: it's just that the ads that affect them aren't the dramatic ones that gain public attention and win advertising awards. In the tobacco area, for example, studies have found that ads which focus on the immediate negative effects of smoking-like bad breath or impaired athletic performance-are more effective with youth than those which warn of the likelihood of lung cancer decades hence . Similar attention to how alcohol could make one lose control in the social situations most important to teens might be a promising approach. (See also discussion of social norms.)
Price and Point of Sale Promotions
A 1993 study replicated this finding and looked more specifically at how price would affect heavy drinking . Though it would seem that the heaviest drinkers should be least affected by price (since many are presumably addicted), some studies have found that heavy drinkers may be more affected by increased prices than moderate or occasional drinkers. This could be explained, at least in part, by the idea that when you consume a large quantity of something, a small price increase has a larger "bite" - but that when you drink occasionally as a "treat," price is less important. The study found that raising beer prices through taxation would cut both the overall number of young drinkers and the number of those who drink heavily. Other studies have come to similar conclusions.
Youth may be especially sensitive to price because they often have little money of their own, and those who drink heavily may not yet be addicted or may not be so addicted that they become less responsive to price changes.
In 2003, researchers looked at the relationship between local alcohol marketing rates (such as the number of bars and liquor stores located near campus) and promotions (like "all you can drink" for one price) and college binge drinking rates . They found that the greater the number of these establishments, the more college students drank. Promotions like special prices at certain times and sales of high volume containers (kegs and "party balls") were also strongly linked with increased heavy drinking. There are, however, some methodological problems with this study.
Interestingly, this study also found that binge drinking rates were elevated when college students were more likely to be "carded" or "proofed" to verify their ages to drink at bars. While the researchers thought this might be explained by greater enforcement efforts in areas with bigger problems, it could support the argument of those who believe that a higher drinking age is likely to increase bingeing. In this scenario, under-age drinkers, fearful of being caught, buy alcohol in larger quantities when they can get it and drink it faster so they can hide the evidence.
Some studies have found weaker connections between price and consumption. One looked at the potential impact of a tenfold increase in the tax on beer and found it would reduce binge drinking by young women by about 20%, but would have no effect on young men . The researchers attributed the small impact on women and lack of effect on men to measurement error.
Another study attempted to account for variables other than price (such as the level of anti-alcohol sentiment in states being compared) in order to look for effects of varying alcohol taxes . Once this variable was taken into account, the effect of taxes on drinking levels disappeared. It seems that states which choose to fight alcohol with higher taxes also have an anti-alcohol environment which tends to reduce drinking, even without increasing taxes.
Both those who sell ads for alcohol and those, like the Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth, who oppose them have an agenda in believing them to be powerful force, though for obviously very different reasons. The truth about the effects of advertising is far more complex than either side admits. Pretending that it isn't doesn't help set effective alcohol policy aimed at reducing underage drinking.
While a total ban on alcohol advertising might be effective in cutting teen drinking to some extent, it would be unlikely to pass constitutional muster. Furthermore, the research evidence is so mixed that it is hard to know whether a total ban would have a significant impact. Consider, for example, the persistence of illegal drug use among teens, in the complete absence of advertising. The research does suggest that limited bans, such as excluding alcohol ads from radio and television, are not effective because advertisers simply switch media.
Measures aimed at increasing alcohol prices could significantly affect youth drinking, but they would also be unpopular with many adults and could even have a negative impact on cardiovascular disease if they cut moderate drinking rates among adults. Moderate drinking by adults has been found to reduce heart and blood vessel diseases, which are major killers in the older age groups. A more effective and less onerous way of cutting college drinking could be to limit the number of alcohol sellers near campuses, ban price promotions like "all you can drink," and reduce volume discounts allowed on items like kegs.
Counter-advertising could also be effective, particularly ads that illustrate the potential negative consequences of drinking that are of particular concern to young people rather than ads that rely on fear-mongering or warn of long-term dangers. Media literacy education related to alcohol advertising could potentially be helpful, but more research is needed.
Presently, the belief that advertising induces teenagers to drink underscores attempts by lawmakers and groups such as the CASA and CAMY to impose stricter regulation and restrictions on how alcohol is marketed.
Some of these efforts, such as a Pennsylvania law banning advertisements for special drink prices in college newspapers, have failed to pass muster on First Amendment grounds. Others, such as attempts to ban alcohol advertising and sponsorship in college sports are ongoing.
Though all these efforts have the laudable goal of trying to reduce alcohol abuse among young people, the social science upon which they are based has yet to provide clear evidence that such restrictions will have much, if any, effect.
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