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Alcohol Advertising Does Not Cause Underage Drinking

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Research presented at the Pediatric Academic Societies (PAS) annual meeting in Boston this weekend has found that children exposed to alcohol television advertising are more likely to drink than children who do not see the advertising. 

With such evidence linking advertising to alcohol consumption, it's time to put tighter regulations on how the alcohol industry advertises its products, according to the study's authors. "While this study cannot determine which came first — the exposure to advertising or the drinking behavior — it does suggest that alcohol advertising may play a role in underage drinking, and the standards for alcohol ad placement perhaps should be stricter." 

Given all the money the alcohol industry invests in advertising, it probably does encourage consumers to drink. But underage drinking is a complex problem with a variety of causes, and anybody who thinks that television ads are enough to get children drinking isn't paying attention to the facts.

Let me use myself to illustrate this point. I was fortunate to grow up in a stable, two-parent home. My parents rarely consumed alcohol, and never around me or my brothers. I also had few friends who drank. And despite watching those stupid Budweiser ads during every Super Bowl, I didn't touch alcohol until I was in my early 20s. Now, can you guess which two factors commonly lead to underage drinking? If that question wasn't rhetorical enough, the National institutes of Health (NIH) points out that "…Parents who drink more and who view drinking favorably may have children who drink more, and an adolescent girl with an older or adult boyfriend is more likely to use alcohol."

Similarly, hereditary factors undeniably influence underage drinking. The NIH further explains that children of alcoholics (COAs) are between 4 and 10 times more likely than their peers to become alcoholics as well. And a study published in the Journal of Adolescent Health found that COAs are much more likely to take up drinking at an early age. "The most consistent antecedent risk factors for starting to drink in adolescence," the researchers wrote, "were parental and peer approval and models for drinking and drug use as well as adolescents' own prior involvement in delinquent behavior."

These factors better explain underage drinking compared to advertising for two reasons. First, as pointed out above, the current study only found an association between adolescent drinking and alcohol advertising. If children grow up in home where alcohol consumption is acceptable or around peers who drink, it's reasonable to think that they are already familiar with the products they see advertised on television. Second, studies investigating the link between underage drinking and alcohol advertising have reached contradictory conclusions. While some research has found that children who find the advertising appealing do start drinking, others have found no significant association between the two. 

To underscore this fact, consider, for example, that sports activities are more closely associated with underage drinking (60%) than is viewing alcohol advertising (between 8% and 13%). Put another way, we have clear evidence that parenting, social setting, and heredity contribute to underage drinking, but limited and contradictory evidence to justify laying blame on advertising.

Parenthetically, there's also that pesky First Amendment to deal with. Any attempt to further regulate alcohol advertising is going to run headfirst into a well-funded and justifiable legal challenge from the alcohol industry. Advertising is protected by the Constitution; it's called commercial free speech, and the Supreme Court has come down in support of it.

So, instead of attacking alcohol advertising, which will have a negligible effect, let's focus on the clear causes of underage drinking. The evidence backs up the suggestion that parents can prevent all kinds of substance abuse. Community efforts are effective as well, so our churches, schools, and after school organizations can and should get more involved. The solution to underage drinking doesn't have to come from the FCC or Congress. However appealing such a top down answer may sound, we can solve the problem much better ourselves.

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