Washington Report Index

Printable Version

Alcohol Policies Home

Send This Issue to a Friend


Washington Report

Special Edition: A Big Week in the Capital!

Two Major Reports to Congress on Underage Drinking and Related Issues

September 2003


This special edition of CSPI's Washington Report reviews two important government reports that were released this past week:  the National Academy of Sciences Institute of Medicine's "Reducing Underage Drinking: A Collective Responsibility" and the Federal Trade Commission's Report on Alcohol Marketing and Advertising.  We also analyze each report and provide explanations of the  implications of each on federal and local policies.



Click here for CSPI's call to action.


In this Edition:

National Academy of Sciences Report

Federal Trade Commission Report


National Academy of Sciences' Report on Reducing Underage Drinking


National Academy of Sciences Delivers Landmark Report to Congress on a "National Strategy to Reduce and Prevent Underage Drinking"

For information, please send us an email.

Related Links:

NAS Press Release & Report

NAS Summary

Public health advocates cheered and the alcoholic-beverage industry jeered the release of the newest report on underage drinking.


On September 10, 2003 the National Academy of Sciences delivered a groundbreaking report to Congress entitled, "Reducing Underage Drinking: A Collective Responsibility."  This report offers a first-ever attempt to develop a cohesive, comprehensive, science-based national strategy to combat underage drinking, the nation's number one youth drug problem.*


Developed by a panel of prominent public health experts, and independently peer reviewed for accuracy, the report considered the societal context in which underage drinking occurs.  This included five elements:

  • Alcohol is easy for youth to get;

  • It is obtained from adults in commercial and social outlets;

  • It is advertised in venues that reach youth;

  • It is prominent in entertainment media, and;

  • It is cheaper than it was 30-40 years ago (when price is adjusted for inflation).

The committee reviewed a broad array of interventions aimed at reducing underage drinking, and based on the available evidence of effectiveness, developed a comprehensive strategy, including the following key recommendations:

  • Adult-Oriented Media Campaign — The report calls on the federal government to fund and support the development of a national media effort targeted at adults, as a major component of a campaign to reduce underage drinking.  The goals of the national media campaign would be to instill a broad societal commitment to reduce underage drinking, to increase specific actions by adults that are meant to discourage or inhibit underage drinking, and to decrease adult conduct that tends to facilitate underage drinking.

  • Alcohol Excise Taxes — The report cited extensive research conclusively establishing that increasing the price of alcohol is effective in reducing underage consumption.  The committee recommended increasing excise taxes on alcoholic beverages and indexing those taxes to the consumer price index.

  • Advertising Restraint and Improved Monitoring and Reporting — The report urges the alcoholic-beverage industry to strengthen its voluntary advertising codes, refrain from marketing practices that have substantial appeal to youth, and restrict ad placement to reduce youth exposure.  It recommends that Congress appropriate funding for the U.S Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) to monitor underage exposure to alcohol advertising on a continuing basis and to report periodically to Congress and the public.

* Despite numerous appeals over the years from an array of public health and safety groups, the Surgeon General has never held a single workshop or issued any report on underage drinking.  In fact, the 1988 Surgeon General's Workshop on Drunk Driving stands out as the Department of Health and Human Service's sole high-visibility forum on alcohol.

Back to Table of Contents



Hill Press Event Urges Action on NAS Report, Puts Industry on Notice

Related Links:

CSPI's Statements:

Press Release

George A. Hacker's Statement at Capitol Press Event (PDF format)


Support from Other Organizations:


Leadership to Keep Children Alcohol Free

MADD Press Release

AMA Press Release

Statements of Support (from CAMY)

The day of the report's release, Representatives Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-CA) and Frank Wolf (R-VA) organized a members' press event on Capitol Hill at which Representatives Zach Wamp (R-TN), Tom Osborne (R-NB), and Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) also spoke.


Senators Chris Dodd (D-CT), Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ), and Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) also issued supportive press statements.  In their remarks, legislators hailed the NAS report as an important first step in ending decades of complacency about the nation's worst youth drug problem.  They scolded the alcoholic-beverage industry for consistent resistance to reasonable, common-sense federal legislative initiatives to reduce underage drinking, and vowed to press for hearings on the report and begin the development of legislative proposals to implement key recommendations.


Representatives of CSPI, Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), and the American Medical Association (AMA) also spoke at the event.

Back to Table of Contents


NAS Report Background


The National Academy of Sciences' long awaited report to Congress, "Underage Drinking: A Collective Responsibility," is the culmination of an effort that began nearly two years ago to secure Congressional report language commissioning the study and providing $500,000 to fund it.


Originally intended as a vehicle to provide a blueprint for a national media campaign to prevent underage drinking, industry tinkering with the appropriations language ultimately directed NAS to "develop a cost-effective strategy for reducing and preventing underage drinking," including a review of "existing Federal, State and non-governmental programs, including media-based programs, designed to change the attitudes and health behaviors of youth."  Fortunately, the final wording retained language focusing on the media campaign.


The study's broader "kitchen sink" scope spectacularly back-fired for the industry, and resulted in its sustained effort to discredit and undermine the report even before its release.

Back to Table of Contents



Implications for Federal Alcohol Policy Advocacy

Related Links:

CPAP's Legislative Priorities

Myths & Facts about Beer Taxes

Talking Points

The Coalition for the Prevention of Alcohol Problems (CPAP) is delighted with the report's recommendations, which provide strong support for all three of its key federal legislative priorities for the 108th Congress.


1. Establishing a national media campaign to reduce underage drinking.


The NAS report calls on the federal government to fund and actively support the development of a national media effort targeted at adults, as a major component of a campaign to reduce underage drinking.  It states that the goals of the national media campaign would be to instill a broad societal commitment to reduce underage drinking, to increase specific actions by adults that are meant to discourage or inhibit underage drinking, and to decrease adult conduct that tends to facilitate underage drinking.


The report also calls for intensive research and development for a youth-focused national media campaign relating to underage drinking.  It stipulates that if this work yields promising results, the inclusion of a youth-focused campaign in the strategy should be considered.


These recommendations provide strong backing for a renewed push to pass federal legislation creating a national media campaign to prevent underage drinking.  This goal has been a top alcohol-policy priority for public health, consumer, religious, and substance abuse prevention groups for several years, and a media campaign will almost certainly be a key element of legislative proposals emerging from the NAS report.


2. Opposing reductions in federal excise taxes on alcoholic beverages.


The NAS report urges Congress and state legislatures to raise excise taxes to reduce underage consumption and to raise additional revenues for this purpose.  It notes that top priority should be given to raising beer taxes and excise tax rates for all alcoholic beverages should be indexed to the consumer price index so that they keep pace with inflation without the necessity of further legislative action.


The report cites three arguments for higher taxes to combat underage drinking.  "First, underage drinking imposes particularly high average social costs….  Second, raising excise tax rates…is a strategy that has strong and well-documented prevention effects on underage drinking.  Third, a designated portion of the funds generated by the taxes can be earmarked for preventing and reducing underage drinking."  It further states that, "[s]ignificant increases in alcoholic beverage excise taxes are among the most effective policies for reducing drinking and driving in all segments of the population, with the largest reductions occurring among teens and young adults."


At the federal level, this recommendation sends a clear message to lawmakers that -- at the very least -- lowering federal excise taxes on alcoholic-beverages (in particular, beer) is a bad idea.  Supporters of such legislation now have to choose between protecting young people's health and safety or padding the bottom line of a politically-connected industry.


At the state level, the NAS report's tax recommendations firmly support and provide fresh impetus for raising state excise taxes on alcoholic-beverages to reduce underage drinking and raise revenues for prevention and treatment.  See Implications for State and Local Alcohol Policy Advocacy, below.


3. Advocating alcohol advertising reforms.


The NAS report identified the need for the alcohol industry to strengthen its current voluntary advertising codes, refrain from marketing practices that have substantial appeal to youth, and be more careful to place ads to reduce youthful exposure.  Even though the committee acknowledged the lack of direct evidence for a causal link between advertising and alcohol consumption, it supported better industry self-regulation and recommended that Congress appropriate necessary funding for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) to monitor underage exposure to alcohol advertising on a continuing basis and to report periodically to Congress and the public.


Legislative options on the advertising front will need thorough review and discussion with Congressional allies.  But possible proposals could include support for better placement standards, closer federal monitoring of and reporting on alcohol advertising, and balancing advertising's messages on alcohol with a national media campaign on the risks and harms of underage drinking.

Back to Table of Contents



Public-Private Partnership and Other Recommendations Need Serious Discussion and Study

Back to Table of Contents

The alcohol prevention community will need to closely study and seriously discuss other key NAS recommendations, notably the recommendation that: "All segments of the alcohol industry that profit form underage drinking, inadvertently or otherwise, should join with other private and public partners to establish and fund an independent non-profit foundation with the sole mission of reducing underage drinking."


The conditions of such a partnership with industry would need to be carefully scrutinized to determine whether it truly would be in the public interest.



Implications for State and Local Alcohol Policy Advocacy

Related Links:

A Call to Action

Talking Points

The report has exciting implications for grassroots activists around the country.  This new federal leadership focuses media, policy, and public attention on underage drinking and strengthens community prevention efforts.  Advocates should use this report to their advantage: draw attention to its findings in your community, cite its research to support our arguments, push its recommendations at a local and state level, and leverage its national attention to draw new allies into your coalitions and campaigns.


Click here for CSPI's Call to Action.


When coupled with community-based efforts, this report can do much to change the national conversation about underage drinking.

Back to Table of Contents




FTC Report to Congress Burps on Alcopop Marketing, Toasts Cosmetic "Improvements" in Industry Advertising Standards



For information related to the FTC report, please send us an email.

Related Links:

FTC Press Release & Report

On September 9, 2003, in response to Congressional appropriators' concerns about the effects of alcohol promotion on underage youth, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) issued its latest report on "Alcohol Marketing and Advertising."  The report examines whether advertising for alcopops (aka flavored malt beverages, or FMBs) targets underage consumers, as well as whether the alcoholic-beverage industry has implemented recommendations regarding self-regulation contained in the FTC's 1999 report to Congress. Congress specifically directed the FTC to:

  1. "study the impact [emphasis added] on underage consumers of the significant expansion of new ads for liquor-branded 'alcopops,'" and;

  2. "encourage the industry to adopt stricter advertising placement standards as well as establish an independent third-party review mechanism to limit the appeal and exposure of alcohol advertising to underage consumers and report…on the status of the implementation of these recommendations and whether further rule-making by the Commission is required."

Back to Table of Contents

Key Findings on Alcopop Marketing

Back to Table of Contents

Once again, as in its 1999 report, the FTC focused its investigation on industry intent and concluded:

  • There was "no evidence" that industry intentionally targeted alcopop advertising to underage consumers;

  • Almost all alcopop ads met industry’s voluntary standard of targeting only audiences that are at least 50% adult;

  • Nonetheless, some ads reached significant numbers of underage persons; and

  • Some products and some ad themes may be attractive to minors.

The FTC warned that producers should "exercise strong caution [emphasis added] when introducing new alcohol products, to ensure that they are not directed to an underage audience."


Analysis of Findings on Alcopops

Back to Table of Contents

Most significantly, the FTC failed to respond to Congress' specific request to examine the impact of the advertising on underage persons.  That request followed Congressional dissatisfaction with the FTC's 2001 superficial examination of alcopop marketing.  The 2001 investigation, like the current inquiry, also relied primarily on industry documentation of its adult-oriented advertising plans.  Although the FTC based its conclusions on a review of industry-supplied marketing materials, it noted (in a footnote) the difficulty of obtaining independent data on underage brand and product choice and establishing a "baseline" for such data.  Rather than admit up front that it was unable to comply with the Congressional request, it focused on self-serving, industry-supplied materials, while adding wryly (in another footnote) that "the companies do not collect data on whether persons under 21 use their products."  The report flatly concludes that "there is no information to show the extent to which teens drink these beverages."


Additionally, the report contains findings and analysis that conflict with its conclusions and prior pronouncements.  Essentially, the FTC concluded that industry didn't target underage persons with its alcopop ads because it met its 50% adult-audience placement standard.  Curiously, that's the same standard that the FTC disparaged in its 1999 report on self-regulation as inadequately protective of youth audiences because it "permits large numbers of underage consumers to be exposed to alcohol ads."  It's also the same voluntary standard whose demise it cheered in the current report (the FTC judged the new 70% adult-audience placement standard a "great improvement" over the 50% voluntary code provision).  The current report, despite its inability to conclude that industry aimed alcopop ads at underage audiences, found that the ads reached significant numbers of underage persons and that many of the ads contained concepts and themes that appealed to them.


The FTC also failed to address adequately the issue of "spillage" (that ads designed to appeal to 21-year-olds might also appeal to younger audiences) -- a few simple focus groups might have helped! -- and failed to go much beyond praise of industry’s self-regulatory efforts.  Rather than provide recommendations for action to capture the new information needed for meaningful analysis (i.e., brand awareness and choice among underage persons), the report pretends there is no choice but to accept the status quo.


Lastly, the report relies on flimsy logic to suggest that alcopop advertising had no effect on underage drinking.  Although tempered by qualification in the full report, the executive summary strangely notes that "teen drinking continued to decline during the period when these beverages were being aggressively marketed."  If the FTC maintains that evidence of the effects of advertising on consumption and harm are ambiguous at best, it's hard to understand why it would make such a wild assertion.  Obviously, there are many factors that affect youth alcohol consumption.  Moreover, alcopops are only a very small percentage of the overall alcoholic-beverage market.  The FTC admits there is no reliable data on the amount of alcopops consumed by underage persons, so they could have been massively influenced by alcopops marketing for all the FTC knows.



Key Findings on Industry Voluntary Advertising Standards

Back to Table of Contents
  • Self-regulation practices have improved since the FTC's 1999 report;

  • Industry should continue progress toward adopting a third-party review system to monitor ad compliance (citing Coors example);

  • A "visible minority" of ads feature concepts that risk appealing to those under 21;

  • Industry is to be commended for its promised shift to a 70% standard;

  • FTC will monitor compliance with the promised new 70% standard and ad content.




Analysis of Findings on Industry Voluntary Advertising Standards


The report again praises improved industry compliance with the "50% adult" ad placement standard, even while acknowledging the inadequacy of that standard to protect youth from excessive exposure to alcohol ads.


Similarly, the FTC's praise for industry's progress on adopting a third-party review procedure is premature and undeserved.  A recent example illustrates why.


In May 2003, CSPI and CPAP (the Coalition for the Prevention of Alcohol Problems) filed a complaint with the Better Business Bureau's Advertising Pledge Program (BBB) about numerous Coors ads that appealed to underage persons and modeled heavy and high-risk drinking practices.  We pointed out several provisions of the Beer Institute's voluntary advertising code that appeared to have been violated.  Coors has asked the BBB to provide an independent third-party review of its ad practices.


The complaint process proved to be quite restrictive and unwieldy and, by the time we -- and another complainant -- received a response, the ads had already run their course.  In all likelihood, BBB judgments may be effective in pointing out code violations after the fact, but they will be unable to block months of inappropriate advertising.


The FTC made a big deal of industry's voluntary strengthening of its advertising standards.  But the practical impact of the industry's promised adoption of a 70% placement standard will be minor.  Several years ago, when NBC considered running liquor ads using an 85% adult-audience placement standard, advertising trade professionals pointed out that the proposed benchmark was virtually meaningless, because nearly every NBC show would qualify (72% of the U.S. population is 21 or older).*  In short, while a 70% placement standard appears to represent an improvement, in effect that threshold largely mirrors what the industry is already doing.  The change is essentially cosmetic, and will afford no real reduction in the extent of youth exposure to alcohol advertising.


The report also conspicuously punts on the critical issue of "spillover" -- that is the impossibility of designing ads that appeal to 21-year-olds without also appealing to younger persons as well.  The FTC's failure on this point (other than its almost offhand acknowledgements that ads reach significant numbers of underage persons and appeal to them) reflects an underlying legal conclusion that industry's right (given the paucity of evidence that advertising and consumption and harm are causally linked) to target legal-age consumers trumps society's responsibility to protect children and adolescents.


We think industry can do better, by eliminating youthful themes, concepts, and characters, by imposing stricter placement standards, and by more prominently promoting only the moderate use of its products.  It's worth noting that some stores that sell alcohol exercise extra caution, for example, by carding everyone up to the age of thirty.  Advertisers could do likewise by designing ads that skew "age-upwards" in appeal, rather than "age-downwards."  Advertising content issues present challenging legal and business questions, but need to be addressed more seriously by producers than they have been.


* Friedman, W. (2002).  Nearly All NBC Prime-Time Shows Qualify for Liquor Ads: Observers: Network's New Policies May Unleash a Flood of Booze Promos.  Advertising Age.  7 January 2002.

Back to Table of Contents




Back to Table of Contents

CSPI applauds the FTC's willingness to monitor industry compliance with the newly announced 70% placement standard, although the change is essentially cosmetic and will not substantially reduce youth exposure to alcohol advertising.


We concur that third-party review mechanisms are a useful idea in principle, but processes that have been attempted to date are unresponsive to consumer interests, and carry no sanctions for non-compliance.  Much remains to be done before industry can truly be said to be held accountable to voluntary standards, even in their current anemic loophole-ridden form.


Short of the discovery of internal "smoking gun" documents, studies which focus narrowly on industry intent to target minors and which rely exclusively on industry data will not tell us anything about the extent to which alcohol advertising and marketing actually appeals to underage youth and influences their drinking decisions and attitudes.  As stated in the National Academy of Sciences' recent report to Congress on underage drinking, "even if the companies are not targeting young people, abundant evidence shows that a large proportion of these commercial messages and promotional activities do, in fact, reach underage audiences."*


In sum, the FTC's report falls far short of what is needed to meaningfully assess the impact of alcohol advertising on underage youth.  It fails to identify stronger voluntary and potential regulatory or legislative actions needed to protect underage consumers.  And most significantly, it fails to hold alcohol marketers reasonably accountable for advertising messages that appeal strongly to underage persons and spray indiscriminately beyond their legal adult targets.


The FTC's apparent disinterest in seriously examining the impact of alcohol advertising on underage consumers only underscores the need for Congressional action on the National Academy of Sciences underage drinking report, which concluded quite differently.


* Reducing Underage Drinking: A Collective Responsibility, a 2003 report from The National Academies.




Contact Information:

For more information, please send us an email.

Center for Science in the Public Interest
Alcohol Policies Project
1220 L St. NW, Suite 300
Washington, DC  20009
Phone: (202) 332-9110
Fax: (202) 265-4954

Produced by the Alcohol Policies Project of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, Washington Report provides online information and updates about federal and state alcohol-policy issues, including alcohol advertising and marketing, labeling, product development, taxation, and industry political and commercial initiatives.  Washington Report also provides action alerts to inform advocates of opportunities to promote and influence pro-health alcohol policies.  Washington Report has been produced with the generous support of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

Back to Table of Contents

Washington Report Index

Printable Version

Alcohol Policies Home

Send This Issue to a Friend