TV Alcohol Ads and Underage Drinking

Can reducing or eliminating alcohol ads on TV reduce underage drinking?  Simple solutions to complex issues are always temping. Unfortunately, news reports can contribute to that misperception if they don’t accurately summarize research findings.

In reporting the findings of a study on the subject, the New York Times wrote that the research “suggested that fairly simple public policy changes” might significantly reduce underage drinking.  The Times concluded this because after adjusting or “controlling for sex, race, parental education, school grade and more than a dozen other variables, the researchers found that exposure to advertising in sixth grade strongly predicted drinking in seventh grade.”

However, the Statistical Assessment Service (STATS) at George Mason University  read the report carefully, whereas the New York Times apparently didn’t look at the actual data in the study.

The newspaper reported that students in who were exposed to TV beer ads during the sixth grade were 43% to 48% more likely to drink alcohol during the seventh grade, depending on the type of TV ad. However, the newspaper failed to report other factors that correlated more highly with later drinking alcohol in the seventh grade.

For example, sixth graders who participated in a sports activity were 60% more likely to drink in the seventh grade.  Should public policy prohibit sports activity in the sixth grade? Other factors highly associated with subsequent drinking included approval of a friend (98% more likely to drink), engaging in deviant behavior (exactly twice as likely to drink) and drinking by peers (132% more likely to drink).

The newspaper also neglected to report the researchers’ more  important analysis of the data, in which they calculated the effect of these factors on one another. This much more closely approximates the “real world” and it dramatically changed the results.

Sixth graders who were exposed to TV beer ads were only 8% to 13% more likely to drink any alcohol in the seventh grade.  Factors highly correlated with consuming alcohol during the seventh grade were peer drinking (40% more likely to drink), sports activity (52% more likely to drink), friend approval (53% more likely to drink), deviance (54% more likely to drink) and, most highly, drinking in the sixth grade (132% more likely).

So it turns out that prohibiting alcohol ads on TV wouldn’t be a simple and effective way to reduce underage drinking.  It wouldn’t be simple because advertising  legal products is protected by the First Amendment of the United States Constitution. Courts refer to it as commercial free speech.
In addition, there’s no reason to believe that prohibiting alcohol ads would be effective in reducing underage alcohol consumption. Although there is a low correlation between the ads and subsequent drinking, there is no evidence that alcohol ads cause young people to begin drinking. That’s the conclusion of research conducted around the world for decades by governments, health agencies and universities.

Alcohol advertising doesn’t cause non-drinkers to begin drinking, increase the total consumption of alcohol, or increase  alcohol-related problems. Alcohol producers advertise their products because effective advertisers can increase their share of the market, which they gain at the expense of their competitors, who lose market share.

Note: The study was based on a sample of students in South Dakota. The researchers examined the correlations between  different levels of exposure to  television alcohol ads rather than to a simple exposure/non-exposure dichotomy. The correlations reported by the New York Times referred to the highest levels of exposure, not simply to exposure. That is to say, “exposure” was equated with the highest level of exposure.


  • Collins, R. et al.  Early adolescent exposure to alcohol  advertising and its relationship to underage drinking.  Journal of Adolescent Health,  2007, 40(6), 627-534;
  • Bakalar, Nicholas. Ad limits seen as way to curb youth smoking and drinking. New York Times, May 22, 2007;
  • Butterworth, Trevor. Can “Fairly Simple Policy Changes” Reduce Underage Drinking? Statistical Assessment Service (STATS). This non-partisan , non-industry-funded organization of George Mason University is well-known for “checking out the facts and figures behind the news.”

filed under: Alcohol Advertising