Beer ads undermine campus efforts
Derrick Z. Jackson
August 26, 2008
THE DRIVE by college presidents to drop the campus drinking age could be taken more seriously if these leaders stopped bingeing on beer ads.
The Amethyst Initiative now claims to have 128 college presidents who want an "informed and unimpeded debate on the 21-year-old drinking age" because it is "not working." Meanwhile, the National Collegiate Athletic Association, the organization through which the nation's major colleges and universities govern their athletics programs, announced it would continue to allow alcohol advertising during sports telecasts. This is despite a growing call from college presidents to end such advertising. If these presidents cannot tell its own organization what to do, they have no right to ask America to let them off the hook for late-adolescent drinking.
It all gets down to the truth that binge drinking is much more about the culture we assault our young people with than about setting the age short of 21. It is nearly 17 years since then-Surgeon General Antonia Novello complained that the level of alcohol advertising, including ads that tied alcohol to sports, was unacceptable. She said, "The ads have youth believing that . . . participating in major-league sports or skiing, surfing, or mountain-climbing go hand-in-hand with alcohol."
The Globe yesterday reported on attempts by UMass-Amherst, a signatory of the Amethyst Initiative, to wage an aggressive campaign on campus to curtail drinking by asserting that heavy drinking is not the social norm. The University of Virginia says such a program is working.
But this is small stuff in the face of the national glorification of alcohol. Study after study links underage drinking to the amount of exposure to alcohol ads on television, radio, billboards, and in magazines. The US advertising of Budweiser, Miller, and other major beer producers is closing in on $1 billion a year, with huge proportions of it going to - as any watcher of the Super Bowl or NASCAR knows - ads on televised sports that families enjoy watching together. And the newly merged MillerCoors company promises to up the ante on leader Anheuser-Busch, maker of Budweiser.
"We want to put more dollars into driving consumer choice and offering them what they want," then-Miller chief executive officer Tom Long told the Wall Street Journal last year. "If that means raising our advertising and spending against our brands to get that done, we have to get that done."
That makes it likely that the pressure on young people to drink will become worse.
Studies in Europe, often cited anecdotally as evidence that its drinking ages of 18 or younger lead to less taboos and more responsible drinking, are not at all comforting. A European Commission report this spring found that binge drinking rates rose for boys ages 15 and 16 in most European Union countries from 1995 to 2003. They rose for girls ages 15 and 16 in all EU countries. And while youth binge drinking rates in Italy and France are lower than high school-age drinking rates in the United States, the rates in Britain, Ireland, Norway, and Sweden are higher.
The evidence suggests solutions more akin to how we treat tobacco rather than relaxing the rules for teenagers to get at the bottle (not to mention how science continues to tell us that the teenage brain is far from fully formed for high-level reasoning and decision making). The European Commission report concluded that "Taxation, restricted access, and advertising bans were the most cost-effective policy options in reducing harmful alcohol use, which includes binge drinking."
Recently, the head of the British Royal College of Physicians, citing a dramatic increase in alcohol-related emergency-room admissions, said the availability of cheap alcohol in supermarkets was starting a "tsunami of health-related harm." That should be a warning to the college presidents who reap billions of dollars in broadcast contracts. Before the presidents ask us to live with the effects of legal teenage drinking, they need to get the NCAA to sober up and stop being an alcohol conduit for the next generation of binge drinkers.