US survey finds advertising contributes to increased underage drinking

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Tuesday, January 3, 2006

A survey to test whether exposure to alcohol advertisements affects alcohol consumption by young people found that advertising does contribute to increased drinking, including among underage drinkers.

Researchers from the University of Connecticut surveyed 15 to 26 year olds, who reported their alcohol consumption over the previous month. The research then correlated this with the respondent's exposure to advertisement, and the money spent by companies on alcohol ads. The alcohol industry's measured media expenditure is roughly $1.8 billion per year.

The study found that those youngsters exposed to more ads also drank more, and that markets with greater alcohol advertising expenditures also had greater alcohol consumption. These findings also oheld for drinking by those younger than the legal drinking age of 21 years.

Alcohol use by the youth has been a matter of public concern, as it has been linked with lowered educational performance, risky sexual activity, motor accidents and addiction. Other surveys have found that underage drinkers account for 20% of alcohol consumption. Alcohol advertising is not subject to federal legislation, the industry follows a voluntary code of conduct.

While many studies have found an association between alcohol advertising and use, the question of whether the link is a causal one is still unanswered. The present survey uses market-level measures of advertising to address criticism of previous studies that relying on self-reported exposure to advertisements might be biased as those who drink may be more likely to pay attention to, and remember the ads.

The study found greater ad-spending in a market was related to both higher levels of youth drinking and steeper increases in drinking over time, which continued until respondents were in their mid-twenties. The link also held the other way: less alcohol advertising associated with less drinking, more modest increases in consumption over time during the respondents' early twenties and a steady decline in consumption after this period. The results are consistent with findings from studies of advertising bans.

The study was funded by the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism

The industries voluntary guidelines specify that 70 percent of the audience for its advertising be at least 21 years old, the legal drinking age. Industry groups have claimed that its advertising affects only those older than the legal drinking age and that advertising at best causes brand switching. Reacting to the study, representatives of the alcohol industry in the UK, which has one of the highest youth drinking rates in Europe, said that there was a strict system in place controlling advertising. But studies have found that there is often greater concentrations of alcohol advertisements in media aimed at youth than at adults.

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