When teens booze it up

November 11, 1991

Every week, some 8 million American teen-agers -- five, six, seven years under the legal drinking age -- hunker down and chug-a-lug. At least half a million of them are binge drinkers, consuming five or more drinks at one session. Given the all too obvious ramifications of such behavior, Surgeon General Antonia Novello is right to put the national spotlight on the drinking problem. But Dr. Novello's call for the industry to voluntarily withdraw commercials aimed at teens is no solution.

Novello's request comes, ironically, on the heels of an inspector general's report criticizing the industry's current efforts to regulate advertising. And small wonder. Every teen-ager the industry can hook on a particular brand of alcohol is worth tens of thousands of dollars in lifetime sales of that product. Why would any industry voluntarily give that up?

The only thing that will work is more stringent regulatory controls on ads targeted at kids -- like the string of videotaped commercials Novello uses as part of a campaign against teen drinking -- showing scantily dressed, tanned young people frolicking about with the help of beer, or like the countless ads that associate popularity, sexuality and youth with drinking.

The industry, predictably, is opposed to anything that sounds remotely like regulation. Still, there is substantial precedent for regulation. Cigarette ads are banned from television, for example, and the FDA recently came up with stiff guidelines for the claims food manufacturers can make in marketing their products. More important, though, the dispute is not over the alcohol industry's right to advertise. At issue is merely whether it ought to be permitted to aim those ads at a population that is not legally allowed to use its products. Clearly, it should not.

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