Almost everyone agrees that underage drinking is a real cause for concern. So anxious to make the transition to adulthood that they are willing to defy the warnings of parents and other authority figures, and unable to resist the persuasive power of relentless peer pressure, teens and young adults frequently attempt to demonstrate their maturity and sophistication by consuming alcohol to the point of excess. Not surprisingly, statistics reveal that a large majority of alcoholics began drinking during their teen years, but what is especially disturbing is that almost half of those destined to succumb to alcoholism will already meet the diagnostic criteria for the disease by the time they reach their 21st birthdays.
Even beyond peer pressure and the hurry to grow up, there are cultural forces at work that may be helping to steer impressionable youth toward drinking. On television shows and in the movies, the consumption of alcohol is usually portrayed as something hip, cool, and fun, as if it were a natural part of the modern lifestyle. Additionally, young people are constantly being bombarded with television advertising for alcoholic products that openly propagandizes for the inextricable connection between drinking and living the good life.
Despite claims to the contrary by the advertisers and the beer and liquor companies, it is crystal clear that this advertising is aimed almost exclusively at young people, as the alcohol industry obviously realizes that most of its customers start drinking as adolescents or as young adults. In order to get them you must get them early, this is the unspoken logic of the alcohol retailers; so advertising campaigns are designed to draw an explicit connection between alcohol consumption and a lifestyle filled with excitement, romance, adventure, success in sports, eternal vigor and youth, and everything else that an adolescent ready to enter the adult world could ever possibly hope to find.
The Case for the Prosecution
Because beer commercials and other types of TV advertisements for alcohol products are aimed at young impressionable minds, most of which belong to those who are not old enough to drink legally, it has been argued that a ban on such advertisements could be sanctified by an appeal to the greater good. Even though it may be possible for older adults to drink responsibly and legally, this line of reasoning goes, when it comes to younger people this rationalization is no longer tenable, and therefore the prohibition of alcohol advertising on television—targeted as it is at the teen and young adult set—is entirely justifiable.
While free speech rights are not something that should be tread upon lightly, the spirit of the First Amendment has not traditionally been seen as a principle so sacrosanct that no limits whatsoever can ever be considered acceptable. We have all heard that crying ‘fire!’ in a crowded theater is not protected by the right to free speech, for example, and perhaps more relevantly television advertising of tobacco products has already been banned, thanks to the Surgeon General’s damning report about the terrible health effects of smoking.
While the issue remains somewhat controversial, there have been a number of research studies that have now established a connection between exposure to television advertising and increased youth drinking, including:
- A 2012 study by the Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center that found those between the ages of 15 and 20 who showed a great familiarity with the content of TV commercials for alcohol products were much more likely to drink, and drink to excess, than their peers.
- A comprehensive 2009 Oxford Brookes University review of the existing literature on the question, sponsored by the Alcohol and Education Research Council, which demonstrated a clear connection between heavier drinking in youth and exposure to alcohol ads on television and in magazines (a link between the use of alcohol products in movies and elevated levels of youth drinking was also found).
- A 2006 research study published in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine that showed a direct correlation between the number of TV ads a young person sees and the amount of alcohol they drink. This same study also found that in particular TV markets, for each extra dollar invested per capita in advertising by the retailers of alcohol products (in comparison to the national average), the level of youth drinking increased by 3 percent.
- An article published in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol in 2006, in which researchers who had studied a number of possible remedies for youth drinking concluded that by far the most effective way to reduce premature alcohol-related deaths among this age group was to institute a complete ban on all advertising for alcohol products. The authors of the article claimed that such an action would result in 7,609 fewer deaths from harmful drinking each year and a 16.4 percent reduction in life years lost to alcohol-related causes.
This is actually just a brief sampling of the numerous studies that have been performed establishing some link between alcohol-related TV commercials and increased levels of youth drinking. No such connections have been found between alcohol consumption and exposure to advertising among older drinkers, but this is something that the beer, wine, and spirits industry already know quite well, and it is why so much effort has been put into marketing alcohol to younger people whose drinking habits are still very much in flux.
Alcohol retailers and manufacturers of course maintain that their advertisements are primarily designed to persuade adult drinkers to choose one brand over another, but given how subjective taste is, this is not a claim that anyone should take seriously. Television ads for alcohol are meant to glamorize drinking, first and foremost, and the only ones who are likely to be affected by such an appeal are those who have not yet begun to consume alcohol in significant amounts.
To Ban of Not to Ban?
Free speech considerations aside, there seems little doubt that prohibiting alcohol products from being advertised on television would lead to a reduction in the overall amount of youth drinking in the United States. Such a ban would of course cost television networks a serious amount of revenue, and it would challenge the spirit of the First Amendment to at least some extent, and whether or not an attempt to prohibit such advertising would be politically feasible is unclear. But the arguments in favor of it are strong, and perhaps our collective concern over the future of our youth will someday be enough to overcome the forces that are currently aligned against a ban on alcohol-related TV advertising.