Alcohol Awareness: Is alcohol too socially accepted?

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Editors note: This is the third in a four-part, weekly series.

By Adam Hammer

staff writer

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How old were you when you had your first drink? Was it 21, 18, 16, maybe 10?

According to data from the 2005 Monitoring the Future study, an annual survey of America’s youth, three-fourths of 12th-graders, more than two-thirds of 10th-graders and about two in every five eighth-graders have consumed alcohol.

Reasons for the high presence of underage drinking have been debated and researched for many years. In January, researchers from the University of Connecticut and Colorado State University released data linking youth exposure to alcohol in advertising.

&8220;The new study shows that reducing teen access to alcohol is only one part of the solution. We must also limit the appeal,&8221; David Jernigan, executive director of the Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth, said. &8220;We need to reduce youth exposure to alcohol ads as a necessary and effective step in curbing underage drinking.&8221;

This is the first national, longitudinal look at the issue. The study found that a 20-year-old male who saw few alcohol ads and lived in a media market with minimal advertising expenditures per capita was predicted to have nine alcoholic drinks in the past month compared to 16 drinks in the past month if he saw many ads.

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, which funded the study, cites a host of adverse short-term and long-term effects from underage drinking. Among them are alterations in brain development, poor academic performance, risky sexual behavior, increased likelihood of alcohol addiction and increased likelihood of fatal alcohol-related accidents, including car crashes.

&8220;Excessive alcohol use kills over 4,000 kids under age 21 each year,&8221; Jernigan said. &8220;Now we have long-term, peer-reviewed evidence that alcohol ads are contributing to this enormous public health problem.&8221;

Although it is difficult for scientists to pinpoint how alcohol affects the developing brain, progress is being made. Subtle changes in the brain may be difficult to detect, but still have an effect on long-term thinking and memory skills.

&8220;Most people don’t see the bad in it if they haven’t been personally affected,&8221; Arik Matson, 18, said.

Alcohol use continues to be regarded by many people, including Matson, as a normal part of growing up.

&8220;A lot of people think it’s OK to drink since our parents tell us it’s bad, but then they tell stories about when they were 18,&8221; Allie Leland, 16, said.

However, underage drinking is not only dangerous for the drinker, but for society, according to NIAAA.

In 2003, the average age of first use of alcohol was about 14 years old, compared to 17 in 1965. People who reported starting to drink before age 15 were four times more likely to also report meeting the criteria for alcohol dependency.

Alcohol in advertising and its effects on youth suggests that alcohol companies could make a substantial effort to prevent underage drinking by reducing the number of ads seen by young people, Jernigan said.

Matson and Leland agreed that alcohol advertisements tend to cover up the adverse effects alcohol can have.

&8220;Ads are always comedy-based,&8221; Matson said. &8220;And when there’s the guy sitting on the couch drinking a beer, they can relate to it easier.&8221;

About the study of alcohol in advertising:

– A random sample of youth ages 15 to 26 from 24 Nielsen media markets were interviewed over the telephone four times over the course of 21 months. The youths interviewed were asked three questions about their alcohol consumption to determine the frequency of their drinking, the average quantity of alcohol consumed and the maximum quantities of alcohol consumed. They also were asked eight questions about their exposure to alcohol advertisements.

– Industry data on the amount of money spent on alcohol advertisements on television, radio, newspaper and outdoors (mostly billboards) also were used for each of the media markets studied.

– For more information about the study log on to