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Bud Light, Smirnoff, and Coors Light share a distinction that may make their corporate owners wince: they are among a small number of alcohol brands that underage drinkers are most likely to choose.
Those are the findings of a first-of-a-kind report led by researchers at the School of Public Health, published online in Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research. The study authors, from SPH and the Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, say that it has important implications for alcohol policy.
“We now know, for the first time, what alcohol brands—and which companies—are profiting the most from the sale of their products to underage drinkers,” says study lead author Michael Siegel, an SPH professor of community health sciences. “The companies implicated by this study as the leading culprits in the problem of underage drinking need to take immediate action to reduce the appeal of their products to youth.”
The study found that the top 25 of nearly 900 brands account for nearly half of alcohol consumption by young people. In contrast, adult consumption is much more widely spread among different brands.
|Smirnoff malt beverages||17.0%|
|Jack Daniel’s bourbons||11.4%|
|Captain Morgan Rums||10.4%|
Close to 30 percent of underage youths surveyed reported that within the past month they had drunk Bud Light, 17 percent had consumed Smirnoff malt beverages, and about 15 percent had drunk Budweiser. Of the top 25 brands, 12 were spirits (including 4 vodkas), 9 were beers, and 4 were flavored alcohol beverages.
The research was conducted online, surveying 1,032 people ages 13 to 20. Respondents were asked about their past 30-day consumption of 898 brands of alcohol, spread among 16 alcoholic beverage types, including the frequency and amount of each brand consumed. Among the brands with the highest rates of consumption among underage drinkers were Bud Light, Smirnoff malt beverages, Budweiser, Smirnoff vodkas, Coors Light, Jack Daniel’s bourbons, and Corona Extra.
“This report paves the way for subsequent studies to explore the association between exposure to alcohol advertising and marketing efforts and drinking behavior in young people,” says David Jernigan, director of the Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth and a study author.
Alcohol is responsible for the deaths of 4,700 people under the age of 21 each year. Earlier studies reveal that more than 70 percent of high school students have consumed alcohol and about 22 percent engage in heavy episodic drinking. At least 14 studies have found that the more young people are exposed to alcohol advertising and marketing, the more likely they are to drink—or if they already drink, to drink more.
Siegel and the coauthors note that scientific literature has not examined the link between youth exposure to advertising for specific brands and the consumption of those brands—something the researchers will tackle next, with help from a four-year, $2.4 million grant from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.
The current research, says Siegel, is similar to work done around smoking, which identified certain companies that were targeting young smokers. After years of pressure from antismoking groups and the Federal Trade Commission, the Camel brand ended its popular cartoon-based “Joe Camel” campaign in 1997. In 1998, the major US tobacco companies and 46 states signed a settlement agreement that specifically banned targeting youth.
“It was this line of research, into the relationships between brand-specific advertising and underage smoking, that provided the strongest evidence that marketing was affecting youth habits,” Siegel says.
The study authors say their work could similarly inform policy efforts to reduce underage drinking, writing, “Alcohol prevention programs and policies can now target specific brands, and advocacy efforts can focus on specific companies that manufacture the products most involved in problem drinking behavior among youth.”
Siegel says the study showed that several brands of flavored alcohol—among them Smirnoff ’s malt and Mike’s—were very popular with young drinkers, yet not similarly favored by adults. Many other drinks that ranked high in the survey also are popular among adults, as expected.
“It really begs the question: what is it about these brands that makes them disproportionately popular among underage drinkers?” Siegel says. “We want to look into the reasons—and certainly one of the potential reasons is marketing.”