March 3, 2009 -- Watching alcohol use portrayed in movies and in alcohol ads makes young men drink more beer and wine, Dutch researchers find.
It's the first time a study has found that watching alcohol ads or alcohol use portrayed in movies immediately affects how much people drink.
"For young adult males, the portrayal of alcohol on a television screen might lead to increased alcohol consumption," conclude Radboud University Nijmegen researcher Rutger C.M.E. Engels and colleagues.
Engels and colleagues recruited 40 male students and asked them to bring a friend. Each of the 40 pairs was seated in a specially equipped lab: It had a comfy couch, a big TV screen, a small table with chips or nuts, and a refrigerator stocked with beer, wine, and soft drinks.
Hidden cameras recorded the men's behavior as they watched a movie that celebrated alcohol consumption (American Pie 2) or a movie with relatively little drinking (40 Days and 40 Nights). Each movie was interrupted twice for commercial breaks that either included or did not include ads for alcoholic beverages.
The researchers found that men who watched the "alcoholic movie" with alcohol ads drank one-and-a-half more beers or glasses of wine than men who watched the movie with less drinking and the non-alcohol ads.
The average man in the study was no stranger to drink. On average, each man drank 21 glasses of alcohol each week. To get a significant result, the researchers had to control for the men's self-reported drinking behavior.
While only one man said it had been at least a year since he'd drunk more than six glasses of on one occasion, over a third of the men reported heavy drinking once or twice a week.
Why did the TV drinking affect the men? Engels and colleagues note that people tend to imitate one another's behavior, and that the portrayal of drinking on the TV screen may have prompted more drinking behavior. And seeing people drink might simply have cued drinking behavior.
Having a friend along might also have had an effect.
"It might have been that a movie in which a lot of partying is involved triggers a social process between two participants that affects drinking amounts," Engels and colleagues suggest.
The researchers note that to extend the findings, the experiment should be repeated with individuals rather than buddy pairs -- and with women instead of men.
A report on the study appears in the March 3 online edition of the journal Alcohol and Alcoholism.