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Derrick Z. Jackson

Targeting youth to start drinking

By Derrick Z. Jackson
Globe Columnist / November 20, 2010

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THERE WAS good reason to go loco over Four Loko. There is only one market for a 23.5-ounce drink canned like beer, infused with caffeine, flavored like fruit, and containing the alcohol equivalent of nearly an entire bottle of wine: the young binge drinker.

After several highly publicized hospitalizations and deaths of underage college students that apparently involved Four Loko, the Food and Drug Administration this week gave its creator, Phusion Projects, and its competitors 15 days to eliminate the caffeine. The agency said the mixture can produce “wide-awake’’ drunks and create “hazardous and life-threatening situations.’’ This week Massachusetts joined several other states in outright banning the drink.

The day before the FDA’s announcement, Phusion Products announced it would remove the caffeine. In doing so, the company claimed it demonstrated “leadership, cooperation and responsible corporate citizenship.’’

What this really demonstrates is America’s stasis around alcohol and young people. Phusion is cited for jacking up the juice, and then after taking out the offending additive, it calls itself a corporate citizen while the remaining product is still Muhammad Ali in a can.

Still, Four Loko is merely an upstart outlier that is easy to pick on. The bigger issue is underage and binge drinking. We remain a hypocritical nation that wags our fingers at kids not to drink but lets top beer companies target them with advertising.

The best example is the National Collegiate Athletic Association. The vast majority of undergrads are underage, yet Anheuser Busch InBev and SABMillier were the fifth and sixth top advertisers during the 2009 Division 1 basketball tournament telecasts, according to Kantar Media. At a combined spending of $36.9 million, beer was the second-most peddled product among the top 10 advertisers behind motor vehicles. In 2009, Anheuser Busch was the top overall televised sports advertiser for the third straight year, according to Street and Smith’s Sports Business Journal. The company spent $309 million on TV sports ads, representing three quarters of its ad spending. While alcohol companies and sports teams always claim that the audience for the ads is the adult drinker, children aplenty are watching the games.

In September, the American Academy of Pediatrics suggested new advertising and product placement restrictions, saying the alcohol industry’s $6 billion-a-year marketing campaign results in young television viewers seeing 1,000 to 2,000 ads a year. “Much of the advertising is concentrated during teen-oriented shows and sports programming,’’ the academy said. “All of the top-15 teen-oriented shows contain alcohol ads.

“Currently, teenagers are 400 times more likely to see an alcohol ad than to see a public service announcement that discourages underage drinking. Teen-oriented magazines contain 48 percent more advertising for beer, 20 percent more advertising for hard liquor, and 92 percent more advertising for sweet alcoholic drinks than do magazines aimed at adults of legal drinking age.’’

The more ads viewed, the more likely youth start drinking. A 2007 RAND study of South Dakota middle-schoolers found that those in the top percentiles of alcohol marketing exposure were 50 percent more likely to drink than those youth with low marketing exposure. In Great Britain, researchers from the Open University and the University of Stirling this year found that youth who were more aware of alcohol ads were so much more likely to drink that “current regulation does not seem to afford adolescents adequate protection from alcohol marketing exposure.’’

As for binge drinking, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says it is tied to more than half of 79,000 annual US alcohol-related deaths and two-thirds of the estimated 2.3 million years of potential life lost. In a nation where 42 percent of high school youth say they drink and 61 percent of teen drinkers say they binge, we owe it to them to stem the assault of ads. A great place to start are the blatant associations of alcohol to institutions that serve millions of underage men and women.

Unless organizations like the NCAA just say no, why should teens listen to us? The commotion about kids guzzling Four Loko cannot hide the truth. Based on the ads we allow, we adults are the wide-awake drunks.

Derrick Z. Jackson can be reached at jackson@globe.com.