WASHINGTON -- With a withering blast at ads that link sex, youthful fun and alcohol, Surgeon General Antonia C. Novello yesterday urged the nation's beer, wine and liquor companies to voluntarily withdraw commercials appealing to teen-agers.
Dr. Novello's call for voluntary restraint in the $2 billion-a-year alcohol advertising industry followed her release of an inspector general's report criticizing current efforts to regulate advertisements. The problems cited range from fragmented responsibilities among federal agencies to the unenforceable nature of existing industry standards.
Ads, particularly those on television, that lure youth with images of sex, glamour, sports prowess and cartoon figures, should thus simply be eliminated, Dr. Novello said. Tougher restrictions might be needed if the voluntary approach fails, she suggested.
"I find it totally irresponsible advertising," Dr. Novello said.
jTC Consumer groups and members of Congress that have been pushing for laws requiring health warnings on alcohol advertising generally praised the thrust of Dr. Novello's proposal, although some said voluntary compliance was unlikely. But industry spokesmen criticized it as wrong-headed and a threat to free speech.
"She misses the point," Beer Institute President Jim Sanders said. "Just pulling advertising isn't going to do a thing about the abusive use of our products."
Mr. Sanders asserted that there's no proof that advertising causes people to drink. He said industry groups already responsibly monitor themselves, with the Beer Institute, Wine Institute and Distilled Spirits Council of the United States each having devised their own advertising codes.
Chief executives of 14 major alcohol companies have nonetheless agreed to meet with Dr. Novello in mid-December to discuss possible additional actions.
Dr. Novello said she was "excited" that the companies quickly agreed to meet with her.
At least 8 million U.S. teen-agers use alcohol weekly, and nearly a half-million go on a weekly binge, according to previous studies by the inspector general's office of the Department of Health and Human Services.
The new inspector general's report issued yesterday was the last in a series commissioned by Dr. Novello as part of her campaign against teen drinking.
A string of videotaped commercials showing tanned, fit and sometimes scantily clad young people frolicking about with the help of beer illustrated Dr. Novello's point.
"Our young people, in their search for identity, combined with doubts about their own popularity and sexual attractiveness, are particularly vulnerable to these ads," Dr. Novello said.
The inspector general's review of the industry advertising standards concluded that they were vague, narrowly drawn, inconsistent and generally blind to promotional activities.
For example, the Wine Institute discourages the use of cartoon characters and sports celebrities, while the Beer Institute does not.
Fragmentation hinders federal regulators concerned about alcohol advertising, according to the inspector general's report.
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms regulates wine, distilled spirits and, to some extent, malt beverages, while the Food and Drug Administration regulates the labeling of wine coolers containing less than 7 percent alcohol.