"Underage drinking makes kids dead," said Dr. Michael Scotti, Jr., a vice president of the American Medical Association, which hosted a meeting in New Orleans today on youth alcohol use. "What we have here is evidence that it makes them dumb, and it may make them dumb permanently."
Studies have found that adults need to drink twice as much alcohol as teens to experience the same level of harm. In addition, occasional drinking sprees can damage memory and cognition in adolescents. Roughly one-in-five youths ages 12 to 20 report binge drinking, having four to five drinks at a time.
"We have known for decades -- literally decades -- that alcohol impairs the cognitive function of adults. There is a mounting body of research that finds that alcohol harms the thinking abilities of youth," said Sandra Brown, an alcohol researcher at the VA Medical Center in San Diego.
Brown, who also spoke at the AMA meeting, said the memory problems of teen drinkers are "subtle," but that they accumulate over time with prolonged alcohol abuse.
The AMA is asking television networks and cable TV stations to stop airing alcohol commercials before 10 p.m. and on all shows with 15 percent viewership or higher under age 21. The group also wants alcohol marketers to avoid using cartoons, musicians, movie stars, and other figures that appeal to children. Ultimately, Scotti said, the AMA would like a complete ban on alcohol ads on television, a policy it has held for many years.
AMA Chairman Dr. J. Edward Hill said it was "surprising and shameful" that the television industry has profited from alcohol advertising "on the backs of those who are most harmed" by drinking.
Alcohol is implicated in the three leading causes of teen death: car wrecks, unintentional injuries like falls and drowning, and suicides and homicides. It is also a major factor in teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases like HIV, Scotti said.
The AMA estimates that of the 100,000 alcohol-related deaths a year in the United States, 40,000 involve people under age 21.
The government relies on the alcohol industry to set its own voluntary TV advertising standards. The beer industry has tried to keep ads for its products off shows where more than half the audience is under 21. For wine, the viewer threshold is 30 percent.
But a 1999 report from the Federal Trade Commission found that the alcohol industry's self-policing efforts were less than perfect. At that time, only 30 percent of the U.S. population was under 21, and only 10 percent was between the ages of 11 to 17, according to the report. "The 50 percent standard, therefore, permits placement of ads on programs where the underage population far exceeds its representation in the population," the report stated.
Voluntary codes "don't work," said Daniel Jernigan, research director of the Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth, who participated in the AMA meeting. "The industry says it won't market to underage youth. Yet, over and over again, we find them marketing in venues and channels that overexpose" minors to their messages, he said.
The alcohol industry spends about $4.5 billion a year on advertising, of which $1.5 billion goes for media and billboard spots. The rest is in the form of "unmeasured" marketing, such as music festivals, clothing with logos, and product placement in movies that have substantial youth audiences. The hit movie Spider-Man, for example, has a blatant plug for Carlsberg beer, Jernigan said.
Jernigan's group recently studied alcohol marketing in magazines. It found widespread advertising in magazines with large youth readership.
Jeff Becker, president of the Beer Institute, which represents brewers and suppliers, denied that his industry was acting recklessly. "We're very confident that our members do advertise in a responsible way," Becker said. "We don't want young people to drink our products either."
Becker said studies show that teens don't respond to alcohol ads, but rather attribute their decisions to drink to parents and peers.
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