Although tobacco firms voluntarily ceased advertising cigarettes on TV in the late 1960s, the drinks industry continue to advertise alcoholic beverages on television. To what extent does this advertising influence young people's decision to drink? Researchers from the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth in Lebanon, NH, investigate in a new study published in JAMA Pediatrics.

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According to the study, underage participants were only slightly less likely than participants of legal drinking age to have seen TV ads for alcohol.

The study background explains that alcohol is the drug most commonly used by young people. In 2013, 66.2% of American high school students reported trying alcohol, with 34.9% using alcohol in the past month and 20.8% reporting recent binge drinking.

Alcohol contributes to the three leading causes of death among underage drinkers, which are intentional injury, homicide and suicide.

In the US alone, notes the study, producers of alcoholic drinks spend billions of dollars each year marketing their products; just 14 companies spent $3.45 billion on advertising in 2011.

The Dartmouth researchers used telephone- and web-based surveys conducted in 2011 and 2013 to assess the extent to which TV advertising influences drinking behaviors among underage young people. The participants in the study were aged between 15 and 23 years, and 2,541 adolescents were surveyed at the start of the study, 1,596 of which also contributed to a follow-up survey.

The surveys examined the participants' recall of TV advertisements for alcohol products that were broadcast during 2010-11. Based on whether a participant had seen an ad, liked it and correctly identified the brand, the researchers calculated an "alcohol receptivity score."

The authors found that higher alcohol receptivity score was linked with onset of drinking, binge drinking and hazardous drinking among underage participants.

What is more, underage participants were only slightly less likely than participants of legal drinking age to have seen TV ads for alcohol:

  • 23.4% of 15-17-year-olds had seen alcohol ads; as had
  • 22.7% of 18-20-year-olds; and
  • 25.6% of 21-23-year-olds.

Among the 15-17 group, 29% reported binge drinking and 18% reported hazardous drinking, compared with 29% binge drinking and 19% hazardous drinking among the 18-20 group.

Current self-regulatory advertising standards are 'inadequate'

"Our study found that familiarity with and response to images of television alcohol marketing was associated with the subsequent onset of drinking across a range of outcomes of varying severity among adolescents and young adults," write the authors, "adding to studies suggesting that alcohol advertising is one cause of youth drinking."

"Current self-regulatory standards for televised alcohol advertising appear to inadequately protect underage youth from exposure to televised alcohol advertising and its probable effect on behavior," they conclude.

In 2012, Medical News Today reported on a study from the Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore, MD, which found that black adolescents between the ages of 12 and 20 are more exposed to alcohol advertisements on TV and in magazines than other youth.

In 2009, the study reported, black adolescents in the US were exposed to 20% more advertising of distilled liquors than youth in general. The study notes that some television channels produced twice as much advertising aimed at black youth than all youth.

Black youth were also found to have 32% higher exposure than youth in general to alcohol ads in magazines, with magazines widely read by black teens, such as Vibe, containing up to 328% more alcohol-related advertising than comparable publications aimed at youth in general.