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Alcohol ads contribute to underage drinking

Robin Wulffson MD's picture
underage drinking, teen drinking, advertising, health impact

We are barraged with advertising from a variety of sources throughout the day, and so are our children. A new study set out to determine the impact of these ads on children and whether they could contribute to drinking problems. Researchers affiliated with Claremont Graduate University (Claremont, California) and the Oregon Department of Human Services (Portland, Oregon) published their findings online on January 28 in the journal Pediatrics.

The objective of the study was to test the hypothesis that exposure to alcohol advertising contributes to an increase in underage drinking and that an increase in underage drinking then leads to problems associated with drinking alcohol. The study group comprised 3,890 students; they were surveyed once per year for a total of four years from the seventh through the tenth grades. The analysis included several measures of exposure to alcohol advertising, alcohol use, problems related to alcohol use, and a range of covariates, such as age, drinking by peers, drinking by close adults, playing sports, general TV watching, acculturation, parents’ jobs, and parents’ education. (In statistics, a covariate is a variable that is possibly predictive of the outcome under study. A covariate may be of direct interest or it may be a confounding or interacting variable.)

The researchers found that exposure to alcohol ads and/or liking of those ads in seventh grade were predictive of subsequent alcohol use (past 30 days and past six months). In addition, there was a significant effect of exposure to alcohol ads on the children. The children who noted that they liked the ads in the seventh grade were found to have alcohol-related problems in tenth grade.

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The authors concluded that younger adolescents appear to be susceptible to the persuasive messages contained in alcohol commercials broadcast on TV, which sometimes results in a positive affective reaction to the ads. Alcohol ad exposure and the affective reaction to those ads influence some youth to drink more and experience drinking-related problems later in adolescence.

According to the American Medical Association, approximately 11 million American youth under the age of 21 drink alcohol. Nearly half of them drink to excess, consuming five or more drinks in a row, one or more times in a two week period. Alcohol is the most frequently used drug by high school seniors, and its use is increasing. Boys usually try alcohol for the first time at just 11 years old, while the average age for American girls’ first drink is 13.

Facts about underage drinking:

  • Underage drinking is a factor in nearly half of all teen automobile crashes, the leading cause of death among teenagers.
  • Alcohol use contributes to youth suicides, homicides, and fatal injuries, which are the leading causes of death among youth after auto crashes.
  • Alcohol abuse is linked to as many as two-thirds of all sexual assaults and date rapes of teens and college students.
  • Alcohol is a major factor in unprotected sex among youth, increasing their risk of contracting HIV or other transmitted diseases.

Take home message:
Deterring one’s children from alcohol consumption is a daunting task. In addition to advertising, children are subjected to peer pressure and adult drinking in their presence. The only deterrent that a parent can provide is to set a good example in the home and maintain rapport with their children. Forbidding alcohol consumption is often ineffective. Stressing moderation by example can have some impact.

Reference: Pediatrics