Alcohol and the Soft Sell

AMERICAN teenagers drink more than 1 billion bottles and cans of beer every year. Although the beer industry insists that its commercials don't influence teenage drinkers, new research suggests that alcohol ads can have a far-reaching - and far from benign - influence on young people.

A study by the Prevention Research Center in Berkeley, Calif., which is funded by the National Institutes of Health, finds that children are bombarded by advertising for alcohol, and that they remember the messages - both slogans and brand names. They link drinking with ``romance, sociability, and relaxation.'' Most troubling of all, they say they plan to drink frequently when they are adults.

Joel Grube, a scientist and the author of two studies published last week in the American Journal of Public Health, tallied 685 alcohol commercials - mostly for beer - airing during 122 sporting events on television. That averages more than five ads per event. Only three of those ads, Mr. Grube reports, urged moderation in drinking. The rest used lively music and fun-filled scenes to sell their product. No wonder the 10-year-olds in Grube's survey couldn't recall any public service ads warning about the dangers of alcohol.

This study, the first to focus on children's awareness and retention of alcohol ads, amplifies earlier research on young people's exposure to those ads. One previous study, for example, found that children can name more brands of beer than presidents of the United States.

As the Beer Institute points out, education programs have helped to reduce the levels of underage drinking since the 1970s. Yet much more needs to be done to make children aware that alcohol is the No. 1 drug in the nation - the drug most related to violent crime, including domestic abuse, and to automobile deaths in this country. Counter-advertising, in the form of lively public service ads, must tell the truth about alcohol. And alcohol advertisers need to stop using cartoon imagery that appeals to children, such as Spuds McKenzie, and stop promoting alcohol on college campuses.

``It's only beer'' has long been a soothing rationale for parents concerned about teenage drinking. This survey, measuring how effectively beer is being sold, not just as a beverage but as a lifestyle, should sober up parents - and young people.

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