Bottomless pitchers

The flow of alcohol ads and cheap-drink specials aimed at college students may be one factor in high rates of binge drinking

Amid pomp and ceremony, students filed into Cox Arena at San Diego State University to hear stirring speeches, collect diplomas – and get one last burst of beer advertising.

While listening to messages about graduates' goals last week, the audience took in another message from beer banners on the scoreboard overhead: It was Miller time.

No alcohol was allowed during the ceremony, of course, but the Miller Brewing Co. can afford to be patient. Its distributor has a contract to display signs in Cox and at the school's baseball stadium until 2012. In addition, Anheuser-Busch has a contract at the football stadium.

Alcohol advertising has long been a fixture on campuses. Still, it is coming in for more scrutiny. With stubbornly high levels of student alcohol abuse, demand is growing for restrictions on alcohol pitches to college students and for more research into their effects.

Alcohol-abuse prevention efforts over the past decade have not even dented the solid 40-plus percentage rate of college students who "binge drink," or drink to get drunk. And ubiquitous alcohol marketing may be a key reason, some who study the issue now say.

Personal responsibility has long been the main thrust of prevention efforts, focusing on raising students' awareness and changing their attitudes. But some experts say that education hasn't been enough.

"It seems that other powerful forces are driving the college binge-drinking phenomenon," Henry Wechsler, director of College Alcohol Studies at the Harvard Schools of Public Health, said in March. "Greater attention should be paid to factors that impact the environment around students, which aggressively promotes alcohol use."

Such factors include cheap-drink specials, which proliferate on many campuses, he and others agree.

At least four major reports on underage and college drinking issued since January cite alcohol-marketing effects on students. One calls for an outright ban on TV alcohol advertising. Another cites a poll showing that 88 percent of college students' parents are outraged by ads via e-mail, Internet, and direct mail that tout spring-break drinking locations.

Setting the norm

In the 1970s, before laws raised the legal drinking age to 21, beer companies sent representatives to pitch beer events on campus. In the 1980s, Spuds MacKenzie, the Anheuser-Busch beer mutt, and the "Bud girls" targeted the college crowd. Giant inflatable cans of beer were once common on fraternity-house lawns.

Now, beer banners notwithstanding, the visibility of major breweries on campus has declined. Of far more concern today are student newspaper ads or fliers from local bars pitching "bar crawls," 2-for-1 drinks, and penny pitchers.

These promotions plastered across campus are only the most immediate message, though. Bars near campus, television, and the Internet add other layers to send a steady, clear message: You are expected to drink if you want to fit in socially.

"One of the ways advertising has an effect is by making alcohol seem socially acceptable and widely used," says Charles Atkin, a researcher at Michigan State University in East Lansing. "Anything people see on network TV is legitimized, regarded as relatively innocuous."

It is illegal for students 18 to 20 years old to drink in any state. Yet underage college students are among the nation's heaviest drinkers. Studies show that underage students drink half the alcohol consumed on campus. "Television advertising, logos on campus, all this business sets the tone," Dr. Wechsler says. "The omnipresence of alcohol on campus, off campus, at frats ... is overwhelming – and it's all focusing on students."

Campus-based advertising by brewers – like the banners flying from arena rafters – is only a tiny part of a much larger, nearly $1 billion bucket of advertising money ladled out by the beer industry in 2001, according to Adams Business Media's Beer Handbook.

Beer is the drink of choice on campus, even though hard liquor is a presence. Low prices and easy availability make it attractive. But ads also make a difference in helping make beer No. 1, some say.

The beer industry denies any connection between advertising and consumption. All advertising is aimed at stimulating "brand awareness" among legal drinkers, not prompting greater consumption by students or luring underage drinkers, spokesmen say.

"It's easy to claim we're doing things we shouldn't, but they can't back it up with peer-reviewed research" that shows advertising causes greater individual consumption, says Jeff Becker, president of the Beer Institute, which represents brewers and suppliers on Capitol Hill.

One of the newest approaches to trying to reduce underage drinking is "social norms" marketing. This theorizes that students drink less if expectations about drinking on campus are punctured with factual information about what students actually drink (much less than believed).

Early research has shown drops in binge drinking on campuses after this "norming" approach is used. Major brewers have also put money toward this effort. Anheuser-Busch has spent $300 million on alcohol education, including social-norms marketing, in the past two decades.

But critics argue that collaborations between the alcohol industry and higher education, ostensibly to educate students to drink responsibly, produce a mixed message.

Party responsibly?

In March, for instance, the National Association of Land Grant Colleges and Universities in March teamed with Anheuser-Busch to air a "party responsibly" message during NCAA basketball finals in March. Drunken students at Indiana University, which lost the game, rioted anyway.

"That was just one more free ad for the industry," Wechsler says. "The message is to drink responsibly, which is to drink."

George Hacker, director of the alcohol policies project at the Center for Science in the Public Interest in Washington, says such relationships create "a serious conflict of interest" for schools and undermine anti-alcohol-abuse efforts.

In any case, many researchers now say it's clear that education efforts alone fail. A major report last month by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) cited 1,400 student deaths a year, 500,000 injuries, 70,000 sexual assaults, and a quarter of all students blaming poor academic performance on alcohol abuse.

One key recommendation was that colleges weigh "the potential mixed messages" from accepting sponsorships and gifts from the alcohol industry. Still, the institute isn't calling for an ad ban. But others groups are.

"One of the biggest [customer] recruiting grounds for the alcohol industry is college campuses," says Susan Foster, director of policy research at Columbia University's National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse. "We don't think there should be alcohol advertising on college campuses."

San Diego State gets more than $75,000 annually from the Miller banners, a help in tight economic times, a university spokesman says.

Yet nobody knows exactly what effect such alcohol advertising has on college students. Some say it stimulates consumption, though the majority of studies do not show a cause-effect relationship. But research into this is accelerating.

Boise State University in Idaho was a "dry campus" for decades. About two years ago, however, the school began allowing controlled sales of alcohol at non-student events at the school's civic center.

Are students' attitudes toward drinking more positive because beer trucks with product logos now lumber across campus and park beside dorms to unload beer at the center? "We're looking at whether these changes in the physical environment will change student attitudes, making it more likely they will drink," says psychology professor Rob Turrisi.

Some clamping down

Some colleges are already clamping down on alcohol advertising. Among 330 schools participating in the 2000 College Alcohol Survey, 72 percent prohibited alcohol brand-preference advertising on campus, up from 58 percent a decade ago.

The survey shows similarly rising restrictions on alcohol promotions (T-shirts, mugs) and sponsorship of events. Little change, however, occurred with respect to industry signs at stadiums: about 67 percent allow it.

On a few campuses, like Florida State University, alcohol advertising is now "banned," though the FSU student newspaper may still carry bar advertisements. But ads for drink specials cannot be based on low-priced alcohol and cannot be posted all over campus.

After some high-profile alcohol-hazing incidents, California State University last August ordered tighter alcohol-advertising policies across its 23 campuses – including tougher restrictions on event sponsorship by brewers.

"We did have a debate, and, as of today the beer banners are going to stay up until end of those contracts," says John Clapp, a San Diego State professor of social work who sat through the commencement in Cox arena. He admits his academic sensibilities are "slightly offended" by the banners at graduation.

But he's set his opinion aside and is deep into the third year of a five-year study of alcohol advertising on campus. He is tracking the student newspaper's content and advertising, and the presence of cheap-drink fliers on campus.

That includes pitches by bars in nearby Tijuana, Mexico, that try to lure 18- to 20-year-olds. Some simply scatter four-by-six-inch cards with their message all over campus. "It's hard to catch them in the act," says James Lange, who heads the school's alcohol-enforcement effort.

At FSU, the advertising ban on alcohol is one of the nation's strictest. Fliers can't mention the word "alcohol" or euphemisms like "come and get blasted." Still, the school newspaper is permitted to advertise – and cheap-drink specials across the street at the row of bars on Tennessee Street continue unabated.

While FSU has had some success cutting secondary effects of alcohol abuse, like interrupted sleep or sexual assault, binge drinking on campus has increased slightly.

"Our alcohol culture is being propped up somehow," says Dan Skiles, director of the FSU partnership that is part of the American Medical Association's multicampus attempt to curb factors like advertising.

Though it's unclear whether advertising increases student consumption, there isn't much doubt in Joslyn Leass's mind. "Every day I have two or three fliers under my windshield wipers," says the junior marketing major at Ohio State University in Columbus. "They're selling us dollar drafts till midnight, 50 cents per drink 'till the kegs run dry' – that sort of thing. These specials just make the students want to drink more."

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Spring break ads: a heavy emphasis on drinking

It was spring break 2000 when 19-year-old Andrew Guglielmi, drinking heavily with friends in a third-floor hotel room in Panama City Beach, Fla., leaned too far over the balcony railing and fell.

His father, Frank Guglielmi, recalls sitting in the waiting room of a hospital in one of the top spring-break hotspots as other bleary-eyed parents arrived from around the country to await the word on their injured children as well.

"Our children had gotten drunk, done foolish things, and now were in the hospital," Mr. Guglielmi recalls. "It was like a war zone. But it happens every year at spring break. And everyone down there knows about it – but they don't do anything about it."

Andrew died. Guglielmi faults his son for allowing himself to be drawn into the scene. But he blames local authorities, bar owners, and the advertisers for depicting wild drinking parties.

"He was seduced by hotels, bars, and the alcohol folks," Guglielmi says. "I put the advertisers in the same hopper. The advertising comes to the kids subtly; you watch these programs, MTV, kids doing degrading things on the beach with beer. It's threaded with movies and TV selling this type of behavior."

Spring-break destinations, travel companies, and alcohol companies woo students with promises of wild drinking parties, agrees Richard Yoast, director of the office of alcohol and other drug abuse at the American Medical Association.

"Drinking on spring break is not new, but now the beverages themselves and the drinking [are] the focus" of the advertising pitch, rather than the sunny locale, he says.

An AMA Internet survey of 372 students at four-year colleges found that more than half thought that ads pumping heavy drinking were most appealing.

Another survey showed that the majority of parents (56 percent) were unaware that tour companies market spring-break destinations directly to college students by emphasizing heavy drinking and sex, the AMA reported in March. The promotions used e-mail, student newspapers, and direct mail.

Joslyn Leass, a junior marketing major at Ohio State, had been Andrew's friend since sixth grade. She says one of the big reasons she, he, and other friends were drawn to Panama City were MTV special programs that showed partying on the beach.

"The advertising just gets students down there by saying it's going to be a huge party," she recalls.

Tour companies put ads in the student newspaper and "send around attractive young men" to the dorms and sorority houses pitching all you can eat "and drink" package deals, she says. But she didn't anticipate the intensity of drunken revelry that feeds on itself.

"Once you get down there, the tables get turned," she says. "There are so many your same age, you're influenced by your environment.... I know one thing, I'll never go back."

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