June 25, 2008 -- American youths were exposed to nearly 40% more alcohol advertisements in 2007 than they were just six years before, according to a study.
The study shows teenagers now see an average of 301 TV ads for alcohol each year. That's up from 216 in 2001. The researchers looked at the placements of more than 2 million TV alcohol ads between 2001 and 2007.
The study was prepared by the Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth at Georgetown University.
Nearly three in 10 Americans under 21 reported drinking, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, a government-sponsored annual study. While the use of some illegal drugs has dropped among U.S. teens, underage drinking rates have not changed much since 2002, according to the survey.
Researchers blamed the lack of progress against underage drinking in part on aggressive advertising by beer and liquor manufacturers.
"The more ads kids are exposed to, the more likely they are to drink," says David Jernigan, PhD, executive director of the Center for Alcohol Marketing and Youth at Georgetown University.
Industry Policy on Ads
Major broadcast networks still adhere to a self-imposed ban on hard-liquor advertising. There are no such restrictions on cable networks. Instead, alcoholic beverage manufacturers use voluntary guidelines restricting liquor ads to programs where no more than 30% of viewers are under 21.
The policy is based on U.S. demographics that count 30% of the population under 21.
But Jernigan criticized the policy, saying that it "double exposes" 12- to 20-year-olds, who make up 15% of the U.S. population. The other 15% are children under 12, who are unlikely to have started drinking.
"The 30% policy isn't working," he tells WebMD. "It's clear the industry can do a better job of avoiding exposing kids to their advertising."
The study says company spending on alcohol advertisements on cable television more than doubled, from $157 million in 2001 to $392 million in 2007.
A statement from the Distilled Spirits Council, an industry trade group, says the study overestimates the number of ads 12- to 20-year-olds see on television. It pointed to another government study, known as the Monitoring the Future Study, which shows underage drinking rates have dropped since 2001.
The study "obscures the fact that while advertising on Cable TV was up in 2001-2007, underage drinking is down significantly by all major measures during the same period," Frank Coleman, a spokesman, for the group, says in the statement.
"The distilled spirits industry is committed to responsible advertising guided by its rigorous code," Coleman says.
Whether rates are flat or have dropped, Jernigan says efforts to cut underage drinking would likely have more impact if companies had not stepped up their advertising efforts.
They're not being nearly as successful as we'd like," he says.