Statement of George A. Hacker
Director, Alcohol Policies Project
Center for Science in the Public Interest
April 4, 2001
National Media Campaign to Prevent Underage Drinking

Good morning. I am George Hacker, director of the Alcohol Policies Project at the Center for Science in the Public Interest. I am delighted to join Representatives Lucille Roybal-Allard and Frank Wolf today to express our appreciation and support for their efforts to create a long- overdue, comprehensive, national media campaign to prevent underage drinking. In addition to representing the Center for Science in the Public Interest, my comments today reflect the views of dozens of diverse groups that belong to the Coalition for the Prevention of Alcohol Problems, which CSPI coordinates.

The Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) runs a well-financed, hard-hitting, integrated, and apparently effective media campaign to discourage the use of illicit drugs by young people in this country. That billion dollar campaign studiously avoids seriously addressing underage drinking, which represents, by far, a much greater risk to young people than all illicit drugs combined. According to the Centers for Disease Control, alcohol is a factor in the three leading causes of death among young people in America: accidents, homicides, and suicides. Unlike tobacco (also the subject of several effective media prevention campaigns), which kills its users in middle age and later, alcohol is a drug that actually kills thousands of young people each year, many more than die from the use of all other drugs combined. The time has come to take our biggest youth drug problem seriously, and the proposed underage drinking prevention media campaign is an important step in that direction.

Reaching out to young people is both urgent and challenging. Unlike illicit drugs, alcoholic beverages are heavily advertised. Last year producers spent more than $1.2 billion promoting drinking in measured media alone. Whether by design or not, alcohol advertising routinely reaches large numbers of young people in broadcast, print, and outdoor settings with appealing themes that include humor, sex, sports, social acceptance, and fun. Research shows that industry's education efforts about drinking have a significant influence on youths' relationship with alcohol. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), studies among children and adolescents document that beer advertising has been linked to greater intentions to drink, favorable beliefs about beer, and a greater likelihood of drinking.

When it comes to educating young people about alcohol, whether they're promoting drinking or offering vague advice about "moderation" and "responsibility," alcohol producers are way ahead of prevention programs. That's why the national media campaign proposed today takes on even greater urgency. We simply cannot rely on the alcoholic-beverage industry to stop appealing to underage people with their advertising and promotional assaults. And certainly, we cannot rely, nor should we rely, on alcohol producers to develop and disseminate effective prevention messages that will help keep underage persons alcohol free.

Big brewers and distillers are masters at saturating our children with appealing messages that link their products with good times, belonging, popularity and favored youth activities. Although I could point to dozens of alcohol promotions that reach and engage underage persons, ranging from television ads to Internet entertainment sites, I'd like to highlight just two very recent campaigns that reveal how alcohol producers target young people. These examples illustrate the need for industry marketing restraint -- and government restrictions -- and for an effective media campaign to tell the other side of the alcohol story.

Last month, Deirdre Henderson, the mother of two young, snow-sports competitors -- one of them 14 years old -- attended a race event at Waterville Valley ski area. Most of the competitors and many of the spectators were teenagers. As her photos suggest, the slopes were alive with banners, inflatable displays, and other promotions for the Seagram Company's Captain Morgan Rum and Budweiser Beer. Each competitor's bib promoted Captain Morgan. An iconic pirate character, the brand's spokesman and symbol, straight from ads in the pages of youth-oriented magazines such as Rolling Stone, Vibe, and Spin, cavorted among the crowd of teenagers, handing out tee shirts, reinforcing the product's image and establishing brand identity among the youthful spectators. Mrs. Henderson described the youth sports event as an orgy of promotions for Captain Morgan Rum. Budweiser signs and a huge, inflatable can of Bud also flanked the race course.

Just two days ago, the NCAA completed its college championship basketball tournament. Despite NCAA by-laws that prohibit beer "sponsorship" of championship games, engaging beer ads appeared throughout the telecasts of the tournament and such displays as this sign for Bud Light (welcoming fans to "March Madness") were common throughout the country. (We found this banner in an Eckerd drug store along the popular River Walk in San Antonio.) Sure, many college basketball spectators are adults. But on many campuses, most of the students are younger than the minimum legal drinking age, and even high school students can be counted among the most enthusiastic fans of the sport. Certainly, many of the athletes themselves, who are used by beer marketers to attract viewers to their ads, are underage. Even if most of the television audience was adult, enormous numbers of underage people spent countless hours watching the tournament -- including the beer ads.

It makes a big difference that alcohol purveyors have such ease in indoctrinating our children about alcohol. Young people who drink early significantly increase their risk of becoming alcohol dependent as adults. According to the NIAAA, teenagers who start drinking before age fifteen are four times more likely to become alcohol dependent than those who wait until age 21. Alcohol producers know only too well that they can attract those best customers only when they're young. They also know that barely ten percent of all drinkers consume more than half of all the alcohol and that consumers develop brand preferences early and often stick with a brand for years. For those reasons, unless a company attracts a customer and establishes brand allegiance early, it may lose out on years of strong sales. Moreover, the underage market itself is not inconsiderable. Experts estimate that 10% of all the beer sold in this country is downed by underage consumers, a market that's worth more than $5 billion each year.

Failure to create and implement the National Media Campaign to Prevent Underage Drinking would be tantamount to sacrificing our children to marketers of alcoholic beverages. CSPI and its coalition allies wholeheartedly support the proposed bill and pledge to work hard for its passage. No less than the future of America's young people is at stake.

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CSPI is a nonprofit health-advocacy organization based in Washington, D.C., that focuses on food-safety and alcoholic-beverage issues. It is largely supported by over 800,000 subscribers to its Nutrition Action Healthletter. CSPI led efforts to win passage of the law requiring warning labels on alcoholic beverages.