TCS Daily

Drinking Problems

By Iain Murray - September 30, 2002 12:00 AM

The demon drink has come under sustained attack recently for its corruption of youth. Newly released studies have alleged that drinking is a major social problem among young people and that alcohol manufacturers deliberately target magazines that they know young people read. Neither of the studies, however, is quite as compelling as the headlines associated with them might suggest.

The first study claimed to find that "Alcohol consumption by children ages 9 to 15 is a major, worsening problem in the United States" (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Sept. 20). In fact, this study was simply a poll, conducted by the organization Leadership to Keep Children Alcohol Free, of 250 "frontline individuals," opinion leaders involved in keeping alcohol out of the hands of children, including 50 personnel from local and national alcohol prevention organizations. In other words, the poll found that those who are concerned about children having access to alcohol are concerned that children have access to alcohol, hardly the most earth-shattering conclusion ever reached.

In fact, despite the concern voiced by these leaders, a recent survey by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University found that 66 percent of teens had not even touched a drop of alcohol before the age of 15. Moreover, 92 percent say that they never drink or only drink occasionally, with only 5 percent drinking every week and 3 percent drinking daily. Similarly, 83 percent report never getting drunk. Despite this evidence, the Leadership poll found that 98 percent of the "opinion leaders" they surveyed thought youth drinking was a "serious" problem.

Meanwhile, another recent study alleged that alcohol advertisers are deliberately targeting teens by including certain magazines in their advertising strategies (see Study: Alcohol Ads Often Reach Teens, The Washington Post, Sept. 23). The Center for Alcohol Marketing and Youth at Georgetown University decided that advertising strategies that include magazines with a high share of people aged 18-20 in their demographics were deliberately doing so in order to encourage people below the legal drinking age to take up drinking. The main problem with such a study is, of course, how do you define a magazine with a teen audience?

The issue is that magazines aimed at a general audience may be especially popular with teens. The fact that proportionately more teens buy the magazine than their share of the general population does not, however, mean that the magazine is read mostly by teens. For instance, despite the fact that 25 percent of its audience is aged 19-20, 63 percent of Sports Illustrated readers are aged 25-54. The suggestion seems to be that, because a quarter of its audience is below the legal drinking age, Sports Illustrated should forego $39 million in advertising revenue each year, which seems a little harsh.

After all, how can a magazine ensure that it appeals to 22 year olds, but not to 19 year olds? The problem appears to be not so much one of advertisers deliberately targeting teens, but the anomalous gray area in America's social fabric caused by treating young adults as adults in most areas, but not when it comes to drinking. A 19 year-old is, to all intents and purposes, the same as a 26 year-old when it comes to the ability to spend money on music, sports and clothing, except when it comes to alcohol. Therefore, if you are aiming at the market of the young adult, aged 22 or 23, there are not many advertising venues available aimed at that market that don't also cater for the 19 to 21 year old.

Moreover, even if we ignore this problem, the Federal Trade Commission looked at the self-regulating practices of the industry in 1999 and commended some companies that "have [voluntarily] raised the standard for ad placement. Instead of adhering to the 50 percent requirement, these companies require a 60 to 70 percent legal-age audience for print media." Of the magazines surveyed, only 1 - Vibe - came in under the 60 percent requirement, and only 3 - Spin, Rolling Stone and Allure - did not meet the more stringent 70 percent requirement. By placing the bar at an 85 percent legal-age requirement, the CAMY study appears to be raising the bar significantly from what the FTC decided was commendable just three years ago.

Neither of these studies, then, quite demonstrates that America has a problem with an irresponsible alcohol industry and an epidemic of child drunks. In fact, survey evidence points to alcohol not being a problem. Indeed, only 2 percent of teens surveyed by CASA thought that alcohol was a major problem facing America's youth - the same percentage that worried about declining moral standards.



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