Excessive alcohol consumption is a leading cause of premature death in the U.S. and responsible for one in every 10 deaths. The statistics that describe the ways in which we drink ourselves to death are staggering. A study published in the journal Preventing Chronic Disease found that nearly 70% of deaths due to excessive drinking involved working-age adults. The study also found that about 5% of the deaths involved people younger than age 21. Moreover, excessive alcohol use shortened the lives of those who died by about 30 years. Yes, 30 years.
One strong factor that reinforces the popular culture surrounding drinking is the glamour of advertising. Researchers at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health examined alcohol-advertising placements to determine whether the alcohol industry had kept its word to refrain from advertising targeting young people. This included television programs for which more than 30% of the viewing audience is likely to be younger than 21 years, the legal drinking age in every state.
The study found that alcohol related advertising increased by 71% in the last decade; this is largely attributed to exposure on cable television. That increase coincided with a reported upsurge of alcohol consumption by high school students. In conclusion, the study suggested that if the National Research Council/Institute of Medicine’s proposed threshold of 15% exposure to advertising was implemented, young viewers would see 54% fewer alcohol ads and society would see a correlating decrease in alcohol related deaths.
What about those “drink responsibly” admonitions on so many commercials? Federal regulations do not require responsibility statements in alcohol advertising. The alcohol industry’s voluntary codes for marketing and promotion emphasize responsibility, but they provide no definition for responsible drinking. So when you see the admonition to “drink responsibly” at the end of an alcohol-related television commercial, there is no idea given as to exactly what that may mean, particularly to someone under the legal drinking age.
David Jernigan, PhD, director of the Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health said:
“The contradiction between appearing to promote responsible drinking and the actual use of ‘drink responsibly’ messages to reinforce product promotion suggests that these messages can be deceptive and misleading.”
Youth who start drinking before age 15 years are five times more likely to develop alcohol dependence or abuse later in life than those who begin drinking at or after age 21 years according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Alcohol advertising influences many people across a wide range of demographics. Regardless of the warning labels on alcohol containers, community prevention programs and general public knowledge of the risks of excessive alcohol consumption, people continue to drink in health-damaging ways. Drinking in public, at sporting events, in parks, during celebrations, etc., is firmly embedded in society as acceptable behavior. At the same time, the large number of alcohol related deaths among all age groups is a concern, especially when this drinking behavior is generally developed while individuals are underage.
Alcohol use is a major public health problem that can lead to social, financial, and health related setbacks and premature death. Talk to health care professional if you or someone close to you is struggling with excessive alcohol consumption.