Scientists from Georgetown University in Washington DC investigated adolescent girls' and boys' (ages 12 to 20) exposure to alcohol advertising in magazines compared to alcohol ad exposure for men and women (ages 21 and up), examining readership data from 2001 and 2002 for 103 national magazines, in which a total of 6,239 alcohol advertisements appeared.
The advertisements were divided according to alcohol type: beer and ales, distilled spirits, low-alcohol refreshers (LARs) - essentially flavoured alcoholic beverages and alcopops - and wine.
Writing in The Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, the researchers said that in 2002, underage consumers in the US (aged 12 to 20) saw 45 per cent more beer and ale advertising, 12 per cent more distilled spirits advertising, 65 per cent more LAR advertising and 69 per cent less advertising for wine than men and women of legal drinking age.
From 2001 to 2002, both girls' and boys' exposure to alcohol advertisements decreased in every alcohol category except LAR advertisements, which increased by a massive 216 per cent and 46 per cent respectively, the researchers found, reflecting the popularity of these so-called 'malternatives' at the time.
Although never knowingly marketed to underage drinkers, of course, a number of brands such as Bacardi Silver and Smirnoff Ice were launched onto the US market at this time, generally with a blaze of publicity, which would account for the sharp rise in the number of viewings of adverts for such products year-on-year.
The researchers found that, for underage boys, 13 brands (11 distilled spirits and two beers) accounted for half of their alcohol advertising exposure, while 16 brands of alcohol (14 distilled spirits, one beer, and one LAR) accounted for half of the advertising exposure to underage girls.
According to the report, alcohol companies in the US spent $1.9 billion on magazines, newspaper, television, radio, and outdoor advertisements in 2002, some 21.1 per cent of which was used in magazines advertising.
"In the context of youth generally being more likely per capita than the legal-age audience to see magazine advertising for beer and ale, distilled spirits and LARs, perhaps the most striking finding of our analysis is the level or overexposure experienced by girls," the researchers said.
"Exposure of underage girls to alcohol advertising is substantial and increasing, pointing to the failure of industry self-regulation and the need for further action." In an accompanying editorial, Ralph Hingson from the Boston University School of Public Health, also suggested that the industry was failing to adequately police its advertising standards. "Are these advertising and promotional practices contributing to the declining age of alcohol use initiation, which in turn increases the risk of alcohol dependence and other alcohol problems affecting drinkers and people with whom they come in contact both during adolescence and adulthood?
"The effect of all of this advertising and promotion on attitudes and expectancies toward alcohol use among both youth and adults merits additional research, as does the possibility of a link to increased consumption or a lack of decline in consumption, despite the loss of thousands of lives annually among adolescents and adults to alcohol-related injuries."
The Distilled Spirits Council of the US (DISCUS) is the one of the main industry bodies policing the self-imposed advertising standards, and as such is likely to be seen as one of the chief culprits of the worrying rise in underage alcohol consumption. Its members are market more than 2,800 brands of spirits, beer and wine products.
The association has not directly commented on the claims made by the researchers, but it dedicates pages and pages of its website to setting out its Code of Practice on responsible marketing of alcohol - evidence enough that this is, and will continue to be, a thorny issue for the industry.
Bearing in mind that the research is based on data from 2001/2002, it is important to note that DISCUS changed its rules on advertising of drinks in October 2003 to ensure that companies were targeting primarily adult audiences - and thereby reduce the chances of such adverts being seen by children. Until October last year, DISCUS had only required its members to advertise in media with a guaranteed 51 per cent adult audience - as was the case during the research period - but it has now increased this to a guaranteed 70 per cent adult coverage.
The Code was also extended to cover all alcoholic drinks made by DISCUS member companies (though, tellingly, there are no official rules to cover those companies which are not part of the association, other than the general advertising regulations applied to every industry). Previously, the Code only applied to spirits products, and did not reflect the reality of consolidation, which meant that most of the major spirit players also had beer and/or wine operations as well.
Data concerning the impact of the new advertising regulations is not yet available - indeed, most of the 'current' information dates back to 2001/02 - so it is too soon to tell if there has been a marked change in the number of children seeing alcoholic drink adverts, but in any case this is unlikely to silence the anti-alcohol lobby, led by groups such as the Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth.
It recently highlighted, for example, the fact that the number of 'drink responsibly' adverts by the industry (on TV) had declined significantly (46 per cent) between 2001 and 2002, at the same time as the number of alcohol commercials increased by 39 per cent. Moreover, with 289,381 spots in 2002, the amount of drinks advertising dwarfed the 'drink sensibly' message - which accounted for just 1,280 spots.
The industry needs to be seen to be acting responsibly - which, by and large, it has done - but this is never likely to be enough to keep the anti-lobby happy, and the evidence against the industry is still too inconclusive to be acted upon by legislators. Moreover, with no really effective way of protecting minors from adverts beyond an unthinkable blanket ban on the advertising of all alcoholic drinks in every media, this is a debate which is likely to continue for years.