The American Medical Association last week called for broadcasters to ban alcoholic beverage commercials before 10 p.m. after completing a study showing that alcohol abuse by 14-21 year olds can result in brain damage.
The beer industry alone spends between $800 million and $1 billion a year on TV advertising, depending on the year. And advertising by the distilled-spirits industry has increased by more than 90% in the past year alone. The Distilled Spirits Council sees spending soon exceeding $200 million annually.
Major broadcast and cable networks declined comment on the study or ban.
"Our report shows that there could be possible brain damage to kids who drink before they're 21 because the brain doesn't stop developing until sometime in the mid-20s," says AMA Chair J. Edward Hill.
The study concluded that youth who abuse alcohol have smaller hippocampi, the area of the brain that handles memory and learning. According to the AMA, 10 million people between the ages of 12 and 20 have used alcohol in the past month (28.5% of that age group) and of those, 6.8 million were binge drinkers (19% of that age group).
Hill says the AMA hopes broadcasters will become more responsible. "As a society we've tended to sweep some of our social issues under the rug, denying they exist, with the classic ones being alcohol and domestic violence."
Jeff Becker, president of the Beer Institute, says his organization agrees that young people shouldn't drink, but the leap to say that underage drinking is caused by advertising is not supported by scientific research. "To some extent we're quite dismayed that a group who theoretically should be credible is promoting strategies with no evidence of effectiveness," he adds.
Sharing Becker's concerns is Lisa Hawkins, vice president, public affairs for the Distilled Spirits Council of the U.S. She says the Council shares the concern of abuse but that the focus on advertising is misguided.
"Advertising doesn't cause someone to begin to drink," she says. "The research is very clear that it's parents and peers who are the primary influence over a youth's decision to drink."
Hawkins adds that a ban on alcohol advertising before 10 p.m. doesn't make any sense. "The focus needs to be on the demographics and the programming, not the time of day," she says. "You can have an ad that runs during a public affairs show on a Sunday morning that would be totally appropriate while at the same time there are networks like the Cartoon Network where it would be inappropriate whenever it ran."
But Dr. Hill says the problem with alcohol advertising extends beyond when it airs.
"They have guidelines they're supposed to use for advertising, and we have many examples to show that they don't go by those guidelines."
Hills criticizes cartoon characters and mascots that have been used in alcohol ads. "Those ads appeal to children and build an environment that predisposes children to drink."
Becker says AMA charges do nothing but discredit the AMA. "Hopefully over time they'll lose some credibility and then reexamine their position," he adds. "No one is going to say underage drinking is a good thing. But to go from saying let's stop underage drinking to it's being caused by beer advertising isn't supported by facts and diverts us from doing real things to help the problem. And that's the danger."