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Beyond Four Loko: Tackling Alcohol Ads for Young Drinkers

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On Nov. 17, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) declared that the makers of drinks like Four Loko and Joose were not allowed to mix caffeine and alcohol. Many of the comments on various news sites said, more or less, that such a decision would “do nothing” to stop binge drinking on college campuses.

They were right. While removing alcoholic energy drinks from the market may have been necessary, it doesn’t solve the larger problems.

The real issues, as Derrick Z. Jackson wrote in the Boston Globe Nov. 20, are underage and binge drinking. Far from taking either one seriously, he argued, we encourage them both.

alcohol industry and our youth How? We allow underage and young drinkers to be exposed to massive amounts of alcohol advertising.

Jackson starts out talking about the huge amounts of advertising dollars that the largest beer companies spend on NCAA sports events, but I think he’s more convincing when he cites statistics from the American Academy of Pediatrics indicating that young and underage viewers see between 1,000 and 2,000 alcohol TV ads a year.

Teens don’t see that many ads because they’re staying up late and watching adult shows. According to the Academy, “All of the top-15 teen-oriented shows contain alcohol ads,” and teens are “400 times more likely to see an alcohol ad than to see a public service announcement that discourages underage drinking.” Moreover, teen magazines are significantly more likely to contain alcohol ads than are magazines for adults.

Would eliminating such advertising have any impact on underage drinking? After all, such drinking is pervasive, and teens are naturally drawn to risky behavior. But Jackson cites a RAND study and a British study that suggest that the more ads a young person sees, the more likely he or she is to start drinking.

In other words, high rates of underage drinking and binge drinking don’t just happen. They’re at least partly a result of advertising by the alcohol industry.

We now accept it as normal that teens and young adults binge drink — many people think of it as a rite of passage. But should we?

After all, binge drinking kills. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 79,000 people die of alcohol-related causes every year in the U.S., and over half of those deaths are linked to binge drinking.

Or, to put it another way, binge drinking is correlated with deaths that account for “two-thirds of the estimated 2.3 million years of potential life lost.”

That’s staggering.

Unavoidable deaths are one thing; large numbers of deaths that could have been avoided are another.

While Four Loko flies off the shelves — either bought and stock-piled or pulled by distributors — we must look at the larger issue at hand: what are we going to do about our culture of pushing alcohol advertising on our youth?

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