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Jan 21, 2015 12:14 AM EST

Alcohol Ads on TV Influences Drinking Behavior in Young People

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Alcohol advertising on television is assicated with the onset of drinking, binge drinking and hazardous drinking among underage youth, according to a recent study from the Norris Cotton Cancer Center (NCCC) and Children's Hospital at Dartmouth-Hitchcock (CHaD).

Alcohol is the most common drug used by young people. In 2013, 66.2 percent of U.S. high school students reported trying alcohol, 34.9 percent reported alcohol use in the past 30 days and 20.8 percent reported recent binge drinking. In the U.S. alone, producers of alcohol spend billions of dollars annually marketing their products.

"The alcohol industry claims that their advertising self-regulation program protects underage youths from seeing their ads," researcher Susanne Tanski said in a statement. "Our study indicates that it does not."

Participants who were underage were only slightly less likely than legal-drinking-age participants to have seen alcohol ads (the average percentage of ads seen were 23.4 percent, 22.7 percent and 25.6 percent, respectively, for young people ages 15-17, 18-20 and 21-23 years of age).

For the study, researchers examined the reach of television advertising and its effect on drinking in young people. In 2011 and 2013, they conducted telephone- and web-based surveys with 2,541 adolescents and young adults between the ages of 15 and 23 years at baseline, with 1,596 completing a follow-up survey. The surveys examined recall of more than 300 television advertising images for top beer and distilled spirits brands that aired nationally in 2010-11. The authors derived an alcohol receptivity score based on having seen the ad, liking it and correctly identifying the brand.

Survey results indicate that higher alcohol receptivity score among underage participants predicted the onset of drinking, binge drinking and hazardous drinking in the future. The transition to binge drinking (participants were asked how often they have six or more drinks on one occasion) and hazardous drinking (which was defined as meeting or exceeding a threshold score for frequency and quantity of alcohol use) happened for 29 percent and 18 percent of young people ages 15 to 17 years, respectively, and for 29 percent and 19 percent of young people ages 18 to 20 years, respectively.

"Alcohol companies claim their advertising does not affect underage drinking -- that instead it is parents and friends that are the culprits," said James D. Sargent, senior author on the study. "This study suggests otherwise -- that underage youths are exposed to and engaged by alcohol marketing and this prompts initiation of drinking as well as transitions from trying to hazardous drinking."

The findings are detailed in the journal JAMA Pediatrics.

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