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A new study shows that many of the alcohol brands loved by youth are the ones they’re most exposed to in magazine ads. But experts say the link may not be as direct as the research suggests. (Thinkstock/Thinkstock)
A new study shows that many of the alcohol brands loved by youth are the ones they’re most exposed to in magazine ads. But experts say the link may not be as direct as the research suggests. (Thinkstock/Thinkstock)

The muddled question of why young people drink Add to ...

Underage drinkers have their brands: Bud Light, Smirnoff, Coors Light and Jack Daniels are just some of the drinks of choice for those under the legal limit in the U.S. They’re also some of the brands that young people are exposed to in magazine advertising.

That’s according to new research in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs. While the data come out of the United States, Canadians are also exposed to those U.S. publications. The study’s authors claim that current controls based on a system of self-regulation by the industry – which is the case in both the U.S. and Canada – are not enough.

However, questions have also been raised about how accurate research like this can claim to be; and whether those who argue for greater limitations on advertising to youth have the data to truly back up their arguments.

The study examined the top brands among underage drinkers in the U.S., and used data purchased from measurement agencies such as Nielsen and Kantar – which provide information to advertisers about the demographics of who their campaigns reached – to examine who was seeing national magazine ads for those brands.

The study found that 17 of the 25 most-loved brands for underage males and 18 for females, included drinkers aged 18-20 in the group of consumers most exposed

While the drinking age is generally lower in Canada – 18 or 19 – some experts have raised concerns here as well. Last year, Dr. Ken Flegel, senior associate editor of the Canadian Medical Association Journal, raised alarm bells about adolescent girls’ exposure to alcohol ads, and the rising consumption of alcohol among teenage girls.

“The current self-regulatory scheme isn’t sufficient,” said Dr. David Jernigan, one of the authors of the new study and director of the Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth (CAMY) at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

Dr. Jernigan admits that the research can only show a correlation between ad exposure and consumption.

“We can’t make a causal claim off a single study like this, but when we find this in magazines – and we’re doing a similar study in television – and combine that with longitudinal studies that have looked at young people’s exposure to advertising over time, that’s when you can make causal claims,” he said.

But Jon Nelson, professor emeritus of economics at Pennsylvania State University, said his own research shows a bias in many studies on what influences underage drinkers.

“[This] study is similar to a number of past studies produced by CAMY. Data are collected on advertising exposure without benefit of an analytical model that relates decisions to outcomes,” Prof. Nelson said. “As a result, the authors can do little more than suggest possible relationships, rather than provide scientific evidence of causal connections.”

It’s becoming even more difficult to track young people’s exposure to marketing in the digital space, where youth are spending most of their media time.

Data about the demographics of people looking at a brand’s Facebook page, for example, are accessible to Facebook and to the advertiser, but can be more difficult for others to get their hands on, Dr. Jernigan said. Besides that, young people often lie about their ages on social media, making it hard for brands and regulators alike to ensure inappropriate messages are not reaching young people. (The age restrictions on many liquor and beer brands’ websites, which ask people to enter their date of birth, do not verify a visitor’s age so much as his or her ability to do basic arithmetic.)

“We wrestle with this, absolutely,” Jan Westcott, president and CEO of Spirits Canada, said. “You can access pretty much anything on the Internet. So it has to be a collaborative effort. A big part of it is making sure that parents are aware, and are giving their kids the right information.”

The federal broadcast regulator has rules prohibiting alcohol advertising in programs with a certain threshold of underage viewers. Print advertising is regulated by provincial alcohol and gaming commissions, but the general rule is that publications with a significant underage audience, such as teen magazines, are a no-go zone for alcohol advertisers.

The industry is overseen by Advertising Standards Canada, which investigates consumer complaints about inappropriate ads – including advertising online. Out of 1,286 complaints lodged last year, just 21 related to alcohol ads. None of those was found to have broken the rules.

Those focused on substance abuse say more controls are needed – even if concerns have been raised about the abilities of some studies to establish a direct link between advertising and youth drinking.

“It’s clear that marketing influences underage drinking,” said Dr. Robert Mann, senior scientist at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), which has been tracking student drug use and health through a survey in Ontario for decades.

While the survey has found that overall underage drinking has actually decreased, the number of young people drinking excessively or in a hazardous way has remained steady. (Excessive drinking in CAMH’s survey is defined by World Health Organization standards, including how often a person drinks, has six or more drinks on one occasion, has experienced injuries because of drinking, and other factors.)

During its work with students, the team has seen instances where after a new alcoholic product has been launched and marketed aggressively, within months a majority of underage drinkers reported that they had tried it, Dr. Mann said.

While he agrees with those in the industry that parents are a major influence, marketers also need to play a role.

“Some students are spending hours a day on social media. There’s a potential for a huge impact,” he said. “It’s difficult for parents to regulate that. You can’t be there looking over their shoulder all the time.”

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