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Magazine ads for alcohol contribute to underage drinking

Drinking encouraged by alcohol magazine ads
Drinking encouraged by alcohol magazine ads
Photo by Adam Berry/Getty Images for Belvedere

Magazine advertising for alcoholic beverages may be linked to higher levels of drinking for the advertised brands among underage youth, according to a new study. The results are making experts question whether current advertising on alcohol consumption is strict enough for young people.

The study, from the Center on Alcohol and Marketing and Youth (CAMY) at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, looked at which age groups were exposed to the most magazine ads for the 25 alcohol brands most popular among underage youth. They then contrasted it with 308 alcohol brands that were less popular with the underage drinkers.

Advertising of alcohol in magazines and other publications is voluntarily self-regulated by codes within the U.S. alcohol industry, according to information provided by CAMY. Those codes state that alcohol ads should appear only in magazines where less than 30 percent of readers are below the age of 21.

“Eighteen- to 20-year-olds experience one of the highest rates of excessive alcohol use and alcohol use disorders among all age groups,” says study author and CAMY director David Jernigan, PhD. “This study adds to the growing evidence that exposure to alcohol advertising may be related to drinking and, importantly, suggests a relationship between advertising exposure and consumption of specific brands.”

According to information provided by Johns Hopkins, ta least 14 studies have found that the more young people are exposed to alcohol advertising and marketing, the more likely they are to drink. If they are already drinking, they are likely to drink more. In 2011, alcohol advertisers spent more than 250 million dollars on magazine advertising in the United States.

In the most recent CAMY study, researchers analyzed national magazine readership data by age group to identify which of the youth received the greatest advertising exposure to advertising for the top alcohol brands consumed by underage males and females.

Many of the brands most popular among underage drinkers included 18 to 20 year-olds in the groups most heavily exposed to their advertising. Among males, 17 of the top 25 brands (68 percent) were heavily exposed to the advertising; 11 brands actually exposed 18-to-20-year-olds more heavily than any other age group. For females, 18 of the top 25 brands (72 percent) included 18- to 20 year-olds in the groups most heavily exposed to their advertising; 16 of these brands delivered greater advertising exposure to 18- to 20-year-olds than to any other age group.

“Overall, the top 25 brands consumed by underage males were more than nine times more likely to include males ages 18 to 20 in their most heavily exposed group, and the top 25 brands consumed by underage females were more than five times more likely to include females ages 18 to 20 in their most heavily exposed group,” says lead study author and CAMY consultant Craig Ross, PhD. “Young people, and especially young females, still read magazines, and the alcohol brands youth are being over-exposed to via magazine advertisements are the same brands they are choosing to drink.”

The researchers add that none of the ads in the study violated the 30-percent standard set by the industry, even though 18- to 20-year-olds were the most heavily exposed age group for some of the brands they were most likely to consume.

"The fact that we see these high levels of exposure to magazine advertising among underage readers despite all of the magazine advertisements being in compliance with alcohol industry self-regulatory codes clearly shows current self-regulatory guidelines are not protective of youth,” Ross says. “With alcohol the number one drug among youth, and responsible for 4,300 deaths per year, it’s time to ask ourselves what more can be done in the interest of our nation’s young people.”

The National Research Council, Institute of Medicine, and 24 state and territorial attorneys general have encouraged adoption of a 15-percent rather than a 30-percent standard. With that recommendation, they are targeting the proportion of the population between the ages of 12 and 20, the group most at risk of underage drinking, according to CAMY.

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