“Alcohol Merchandise Encourages Underage Drinking.” That headline, along with its story, was uncritically carried by ABC News, Forbes, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, drkoop.com, HealthCentral.com, Healthopedia.com, and RedNova.com. 1
The widely-printed article asserts that the availability of alcohol-related merchandise to anyone under the age of 21 “flies in the face of the 1984 federal National Minimum Drinking Age Act” and contends that the study is “a wake-up call for parents as well as the alcohol industry.”
What did this study of a small sample of young people from Vermont and New Hampshire reveal? Simply that young people who drank were more likely to have shirts and other merchandise with alcohol brand logos.
Of course, religious people are more likely to wear crosses, Stars of David or other religious symbols than are non-believers. Wearing religious items doesn’t cause people to become religious and wearing a shirt with a beer label doesn’t cause people to begin drinking alcoholic beverages.
The research found that “sensation-seeking,” an enduring personality trait, is associated with wearing alcohol merchandise, drinking, having peers who drink, having tried smoking, and doing less well in school. The personality characteristic of sensation-seeking is a much more likely cause of drinking than is wearing a cap showing a beer brand.
A headline of “Personality trait of Sensation-Seeking Encourages Underage Drinking” wouldn’t grab attention and wouldn’t excite the public as being “a wake-up call for parents as well as the alcohol industry.” But it would certainly be much closer to the truth.