Are alcohol ads and underage drinking related? Can reducing or eliminating alcohol ads on TV reduce underage drinking?
Simple solutions to complex issues are always temping. Unfortunately, news reports can mislead if they don’t accurately summarize research findings.
In reporting the findings of a study1 on the subject, the New York Times failed to report accurately. It wrote that the research “suggested that fairly simple public policy changes” might greatly 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.”
STATS to the Rescue
However, the Statistical Assessment Service (STATS)2 of George Mason University read the report carefully. (It collaborates with the American Statistical Association.) Apparently, the New York Times didn’t actually look at the actual data in the study. It may have only read a press release.
The newspaper reported the following fact correctly. Students who saw TV beer ads during the sixth grade were much more likely to drink in the seventh. However, it 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. Specifically, 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 saw TV beer ads were only 8% to 13% more likely to drink in the seventh grade. Factors highly correlated with consuming alcohol during the seventh grade were these.
- Peer drinking (40% more likely to drink).
- Playing sports (52% more likely to drink).
- Friend approval (53% more likely to drink).
- Deviance (54% more likely to drink).
- Drinking in the sixth grade (132% more likely).
Neither Simple nor Effective
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 U.S. Constitution. Courts refer to it as commercial free speech.
In addition, prohibiting alcohol ads would almost certainly be ineffective in reducing underage drinking. There’s a low correlation between the ads and later drinking. However, there is no evidence that alcohol ads cause young people to begin drinking. That’s the conclusion of research done around the world for decades by governments, health agencies and universities.
What Alcohol Ads Can Do
Alcohol advertising doesn’t cause non-drinkers to begin drinking. It doesn’t increase the total consumption of alcohol. And it doesn’t increase alcohol-related problems.
Alcohol producers advertise their products because effective advertisers can increase their share of the market. They gain te at the expense of their competitors, who lose market share.
Resources: Alcohol Ads and Underage Drinking
Brignell, J. Sorry, Wrong Number! London: Brignell, 2000.
Huff, D. How to Lie with Statistics. NY: Norton, 2010.
Milloy, S. Junk Science Judo. Self-Defense Against Health Scares and Scams. Washington: Cato, 2001.
- The study was based on a sample of students in South Dakota. The researchers examined the correlations between different levels of exposure to TV alcohol ads. They didn’t simply have an 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 only the highest level of exposure.
- STATS) is a non-partisan , non-industry-funded organization of George Mason University. It’s well-known for “checking out the facts and figures behind the news.”