Letter to President Bush Regarding Broadcast Alcohol Advertisements


January 25, 2001

The Honorable George W. Bush
President of the United States
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
Washington, D.C. 20500

Dear Mr. President:

As organizations concerned about the future of America's young people, we want to alert you to a growing menace to our children: the proliferation of alcoholic-beverage advertising -- including a liquor-branded malt beverage, Smirnoff Ice -- on this year's Super Bowl, an event that will be watched by millions of people below the legal drinking age of 21. For many reasons, we believe that it is wrong to allow alcohol marketers access to large audiences of young, impressionable children and teens. We are particularly concerned by the continuing erosion of voluntary industry standards that, until recently, protected young people from broadcast promotions to drink liquor.

This year's Super Bowl will be watched by as many as 33 million young people under the legal drinking age in every state of the union. That number accounts for some 25 percent of all those watching, but also for 40 percent of all the people under 21 years old in America. Regrettably, the most prominent advertiser during our country's most popular sporting event will be Anheuser-Busch, the world's largest brewer, which will air twice as many messages as the next leading advertiser. Smirnoff Ice, marketed by Diageo PLC/Guinness UDV, will also be advertised during the game. Although those ads were placed in local markets, some 40 percent of network viewers will see them.

The airing of ads for Smirnoff Ice (a malt-based 5 percent alcohol-by-volume beverage with a liquor name and logo) during the Super Bowl represents a further serious erosion of the liquor industry's former voluntary prohibition of distilled spirits advertising on radio and television. Advertising the Smirnoff name during the Super Bowl is a clandestine means of promoting vodka. More seriously, it portends the eventual addition of ads for other distilled spirits in broadcast, resulting in a potential deluge of new ads -- on top of those for beer -- that target even more young people with messages encouraging them to drink.

Those clever and funny beer ads, which have been among the most entertaining Super Bowl commercials in previous Super Bowls, are especially popular among teenagers. Numerous studies -- even some done by the advertising industry -- have documented that young people pay attention to those ads, enjoy them, learn from them, and develop expectations about drinking from them.

As you may know, alcohol is the leading drug threat to young people in America, the one most likely to interfere with their education as well as put them at serious risk for injury and death. Thousands of young people under the age of 21 die of alcohol-related causes each year, including automobile crashes and accidents, suicides, homicides, burns, and drowning. Underage drinking cost the country more than $58 billion in 1998, and results in countless tragedies and wasted lives.

Unfortunately, most young people do not wait until becoming adults to begin drinking. According to government data, many start drinking as early as 13 years of age, and by the time they're 12th graders (17 and 18 year-olds), 30 percent get drunk at least once a month. More than 40 percent of college students binge drink and half of those are frequent binge drinkers. According to other studies, early onset of drinking strongly increases the likelihood that younger people will become alcohol dependent later in life. One major study conducted by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism found that a person who started drinking by age 15 was four times more likely to become alcohol dependent than one who waited until age 21 to drink.

Extensive alcohol advertising (some $1.2 billion in measured media in 1999) that glamorizes and normalizes alcohol consumption regularly reaches large numbers of underage persons. Those messages exacerbate alcohol problems by encouraging young people to drink, ignoring problems related to alcohol consumption, and developing expectations that drinking is an important, valued, fun, and normative adult behavior. They also represent a great disservice to millions of alcohol-dependent and recovering persons, and especially to their children who are the most vulnerable to becoming the next generation of alcohol-dependent young adults. Anheuser-Busch, the exclusive beer advertiser on network television during the Super Bowl, will air eight ads.

In 1999, in a review of self-regulation and voluntary advertising standards in the alcoholic-beverage industry, the Federal Trade Commission recommended that advertisers should raise their current standards for avoiding underage audiences. The Commission also called on industry members to adopt "best practices," which included barring the placement of ads on TV shows and in other media with the largest underage audiences. Without question, the Super Bowl has one of the largest, if not the largest, audience of underage persons of any televised show. We believe that beer ads (including ads for liquor-branded malt beverages) should not appear during the game or on other programs with substantial youth audiences.

The Food and Drug Administration has proposed a standard for tobacco that would prohibit marketing to audiences whose underage members exceed 15 percent of the audience or 2 million, whichever is smaller. Indeed, the country's largest cigarette marketer has adopted this standard. The Philip Morris Company no longer advertises in dozens of magazines for which the demographics skew too young. We see no reason why alcohol producers, for a product that has a larger universe of underage persons (21-years old to purchase alcohol versus 18 years to purchase tobacco products), should not be held to the same standard.

Likewise, we see no reason why a society that cares about its children should tolerate alcohol-industry voluntary advertising standards that permit advertising to audiences composed of persons half of whom are under the legal drinking age. Even the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) found that 50 percent standard to be far too permissive, particularly when compared to the underage population in this country, which accounts for about 30 percent of the total. The FTC also noted that only ten percent of the American population is age 11 to 17. What reasonable person could conclude that an audience comprised half of 11- to 17-year-olds and half of adults is an appropriate one for alcoholic-beverage marketers?

In recent years, your predecessor twice publicly urged distillers to resume their longstanding voluntary ban on broadcast liquor ads. If there's any area where bipartisanship is possible and necessary, it's surely the prevention of underage drinking. We ask you to put children first and respectfully invite you to add your voice to those of concerned parents, health and safety groups, and faith-based organizations, all of whom are concerned about alcohol problems and about the proliferation of powerful and persuasive broadcast messages encouraging young people to drink.

In addition, we respectfully request that you direct members of your Administration to: (1) examine the degree to which alcohol advertising inappropriately reaches and influences underage youth; (2) take action to seek voluntary industry reforms -- or regulatory and legislative measures -- to reduce underage youths' exposure to alcohol advertising; (3) propose and support legislation, if necessary, to stop the expansion of distilled spirits advertising on radio and television; and (4) require broadcasters to balance advertising for alcoholic beverages with public health and safety messages about the risks related to drinking and with effective messages to prevent underage alcohol consumption.

Thank you very much for your consideration. We look forward to working with you and your Administration on behalf of America's children and teenagers. On behalf of the following 74 signers of this letter,


George A. Hacker
Alcohol Policies Project

cc: Andrew H. Card, Chief of Staff
     First Lady Laura Bush