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Alcohol Merchandise Encourages Underage Drinking

Middle school kids who had promotional materials started drinking earlier

TUESDAY, May 17, 2005 (HealthDay News) -- Adolescents who collect and brandish promotional hats, shirts, bags and other merchandise displaying popular alcohol logos are far more likely to start drinking while still underage, according to a new study.

Researchers from the Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon, N.H., were to present the finding Tuesday at the annual meeting of the Pediatric Academic Societies in Washington, D.C.

In light of the apparent connection, the authors of the study recommended that the alcohol industry officially halt the practice of distributing and selling alcohol-related paraphernalia -- much as the tobacco industry did with tobacco-related items in 1998.

"This study shows that promotional items are related to early onset drinking, and I think the responsible thing to do would be for these industries to quit distributing them," said Dr. James D. Sargent, study co-author from Dartmouth's department of pediatrics.

According to the study authors, the alcohol industry currently spends more than $1 billion a year on all aspects of marketing -- a figure that includes expenditures for such youth-oriented promotional items as baseball caps, backpacks and t-shirts.

Such teen-targeted branding flies in the face of the 1984 federal National Minimum Drinking Age Act, which set the drinking age in the United States at 21 years -- the highest in the world. The legislation mandated that all 50 states prohibit the selling of alcohol to minors under the age of 21. Public possession of alcohol by minors was similarly made illegal.

However, the law did not actually outlaw underage drinking -- allowing those under 21 to legally consume alcohol in private settings or for either religious or medicinal purposes.

According to 2003 figures issued by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, almost half of all adolescents have had at least one drink -- and more than one-fifth have been drunk -- by the time they enter the eighth grade.

Beginning in 1999, Sargent and his colleagues examined the drinking behavior of this age group by focusing on more than 2,400 middle school students in Vermont and New Hampshire.

The adolescents ranged in age from 9 to 15 years -- attending grades five through eight. The research team established that none of the children had ever had a drink at the onset of the study.

During follow-up telephone interviews conducted one to two years later, Sargent and his team found that 14 percent of the students said they now owned at least one alcohol-related promotional item. Of the 32 students who mentioned the particular branding of their promotional possession, 29 had beer-related ones.

The researchers further found that 15 percent of the students said they now drank alcohol to some degree.

Those students who owned alcohol merchandise were significantly more likely to start drinking alcohol than those who did not. More than 24 percent of those who owned promotional items said they consumed alcohol, compared with the slightly more than 12 percent of non-owners who said they drank.

The researchers noted that ownership of alcohol promotional items was associated with being at the older range of the student group, having peers who drank, having tried smoking, "sensation-seeking," and doing less well in school.

"I think the beverage industry needs to take this seriously," said Sargent. "There's a tremendous amount of research showing that branded merchandise that the tobacco industry distributed clearly contributed to the teen smoking problem. There's just no doubt about it. Looking at the branded merchandise distributed by the alcohol industry is a relatively new topic, but it's such a similar situation that I would be surprised if multiple studies won't show that this is true in this case as well."

Sargent said the findings were a wake-up call for parents as well as the alcohol industry.

"For parents, you really shouldn't allow your kids to have these things," he cautioned. "Firstly, it increases the chance they will take up drinking at an early age. And secondly, when they wear them, they are a walking billboard. And you don't want your kid to advertise Budweiser beer to kids."

"For the wine and liquor industry," he added, "the point is that these kind of promotional things related to smoking were shown to lead to increased smoking among teens. And the tobacco industry gave up putting out the items."

Sargent said the alcohol industry should pick up on big tobacco's cue -- noting that he expects a larger national study of teens he is currently conducting to further underline the urgency for such action.

David Jernigan, research director at the Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., echoes the sentiment that the alcohol industry must take responsibility for its influence on underage drinking.

"The bottom line is that even the industry agrees that peer pressure is critical in a kid's decision to drink," he said. "So it creates a whole set of walking billboards among the peer group at risk -- among the underage peers. And that's not helpful to efforts to reduce underage drinking."

Attempts by HealthDay to reach representatives of the beer industry for comment were unsuccessful.

More information

For more on underage drinking, check out the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

SOURCES: James D. Sargent, M.D., department of pediatrics, Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, Lebanon, N.H.; David Jernigan, Ph.D., research director, Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth, Georgetown University, Washington, D.C.; May 17, 2005, presentation, Pediatric Academic Societies, annual meeting, Washington D.C.
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