Petition to the FCC on the Advertising of Distilled Spirits and other Alcoholic Beverages in Electronic Broadcast Media

Before the

Washington, D.C. 20554

In the Matter of:

The Advertising of Distilled Spirits
and other Alcoholic Beverages
in Electronic Broadcast Media



The Center for Science in the Public Interest, joined by the undersigned individuals and organizations, submits this Petition requesting the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to issue a Notice of Inquiry concerning the issues raised by the commencement of distilled spirits advertising on television and radio. Congress has vested the Commission with authority to investigate and regulate broadcasters' ability to air commercial advertising to ensure that the grant of broadcast licenses serves the "public interest, convenience and necessity." The significant public interest issues raised by the November 1996 decision by the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States (DISCUS) to lift its voluntary ban on the broadcasting of liquor advertisements, and the actual broadcasting of such advertisements by the Joseph Seagram Company and other liquor interests, warrant a full Commission investigation. That inquiry would help determine the effects those advertisements might have on the many persons under the legal drinking age in the broadcast audience. Such scrutiny would also focus on the effects of beer and wine advertisements that currently appear on radio and television.

Notice of Inquiry should focus on the following issues:

(l) Whether permitting liquor and other advertisements for alcoholic beverages is consistent with the FCC's broader responsibility to serve the public interest;

When Congress created the FCC, it was given the mandate of ensuring that the grant or renewal of broadcast licenses serve the "public interest, convenience and necessity." Consistent with this mandate, the Commission has addressed a variety of content-related issues, including advertising. Thus, the Commission has focused on cigarette advertising, concluding in 1969 that it had the authority to ban such ads. And, more recently, it has focused on the public interest goal of protecting youthful viewers from certain television programming which is harmful to them. Significantly, Congress supported FCC's proposed ban on cigarette advertisements in the broadcast medium by imposing a ban through new legislation. The courts have also upheld the FCC's actions to protect children from harmful programming, and have sanctioned restrictions on alcohol advertising designed to protect children outside the broadcasting context.

The issues addressed by these earlier matters mirror those currently being raised by liquor advertising. Like the effects of smoking on health, the dangers of underage alcohol consumption can be catastrophic. The need to prevent young people from being encouraged to consume liquor is becoming increasingly apparent.

  • The median age at which children begin drinking is just over 13 years.
  • 18% of eight graders, 39% of tenth graders, and 53% of twelfth graders report having been drunk in the year preceding a national survey.
  • One quarter of sixth graders say it is "fairly easy" or "very easy" to get beer. 15% say it is as easy to get liquor.
  • 56% of students in grades 5 to 12 say that alcohol advertising encourages them to drink.

The risks and consequences for youth can be devastating. Among ninth-grade students, alcohol or other drug use, or a combination of substances, was the best predictor of early sexual activity and the failure to use contraception. For youth, alcohol use more than any other single factor is responsible for more pregnancies, sexually transmitted diseases, and HIV infections. Alcohol use during pregnancy can lead to Fetal Alcohol Syndrome and developmental problems in children.

Alcohol is a factor in the three leading causes of death for l5-20 year olds: unintentional injuries (including motor vehicle crashes), homicides and suicides. In 1995, more than 2000 youths 15-20 were killed in alcohol-related crashes. Alcohol use has been involved in as many as 50-65 percent of all suicides among youth. Ninety-five percent of violent crime on college campuses is alcohol related.

Despite the risks that alcohol poses to youth, young people are exposed to advertisements for alcoholic beverages on radio and television at almost any time of day. According to Nielsen Media Research, 18-million children and teens, ages 2-17, watch television between 9 and 9:30 p.m. Monday through Sunday. Those viewers account for 31% of the population in that age group and more than 17% of all viewers during that time slot. Even at 10:30 p.m., almost 25% of teens 12-17 watch TV and 10 million tune in between 10:30 and 11:00 p.m. Similarly, radio programming aimed at adult audiences also reaches underage audiences.

An FCC inquiry is necessary to determine the degree to which those advertisements reach and influence underage persons and the extent to which they subvert society's public interest in communicating and enforcing laws that restrict the purchase and consumption of alcoholic beverages to persons 21 years and older.

(2) Whether the FCC should take regulatory action to ban such advertisements, require channeling to particular time-slots, propose informational campaigns to discourage underage alcohol consumption, or otherwise ensure that alcoholic-beverage advertisements do not influence audiences below the legal drinking age;

At this point, it is premature to predict the course of action that the Commission should take. The Commission needs to evaluate the effects on youth of new liquor advertisements on television and radio in the context of those advertisements for beer and wine on the airwaves. The Commission should determine when -- or during what kind of programming -- alcoholic-beverage advertisements are most concentrated on radio and television and propose corrective measures for advertisers to avoid reaching substantial teen audiences.

(3) Whether new legislation is necessary to serve the "public interest."

There are many competing interests involved in the alcohol advertising issues. As in the case of cigarettes, and more recently, dietary supplements, the Commission and Congress may determine that new legislation is necessary to ensure an appropriate regulatory response. FCC's inquiry must consider this factor.

We believe that a Notice of Inquiry is the most appropriate means for addressing the myriad issues triggered by the lifting of DISCUS' broadcast ban and the actual airing of liquor advertisements. Radio and television play an influential role in the development of teenagers' attitudes and behaviors. Alcohol is the drug of choice among young people in this country and their principal drug problem. A Notice of Inquiry provides the necessary information-gathering forum through which the Commission will hear the views of the public, industry, and other interested parties; collect relevant data; and examine its authority and responsibility to protect children and help uphold state laws on underage drinking.

Accordingly, CSPI and the other individuals and organizations joining this petition respectfully request that the FCC undertake a Notice of Inquiry.

Respectfully submitted,

George A. Hacker
Alcohol Policies Project
Center for Science in the Public Interest
1220 L St, NW Suite 300
Washington, DC 20005
202-332-9110 ext. 385

Ilene Ringel Heller
Staff Attorney
Center for Science in the Public Interest

Dated: April 24, 1997