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New Study: Alcohol Brands Underage Drinkers Prefer

SPH research identifies top preferences

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Bud Light, Smirnoff, and Budweiser share a distinction that may make their corporate owners wince: they are among a relatively small number of alcohol brands that underage drinkers choose most.

This according to a first-of-a-kind report led by researchers at the School of Public Health, published online in Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research. It is the first national study to identify the specific alcohol brands underage youth drink. 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 research and 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 youth alcohol consumption. In contrast, adult consumption is much more widely spread among different brands.

Close to 30 percent of underage youths surveyed reported drinking Bud Light within the past month, 17 percent had consumed Smirnoff malt beverages within the previous month, and about 15 percent reported drinking Budweiser in the 30-day period.

Of the top 25 consumed brands, 12 were spirits brands (including 4 vodkas), 9 were beers, and 4 were flavored alcohol beverages.

The researchers surveyed 1,032 young people, ages 13 to 20, using an Internet-based questionnaire. 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.

The brands with the highest rates of consumption among underage drinkers were: Bud Light (27.9 percent), Smirnoff Malt Beverages (17.0 percent), Budweiser (14.6 percent), Smirnoff Vodkas (12.7 percent), Coors Light (12.7 percent), Jack Daniel’s Bourbons (11.4 percent), Corona Extra (11.3 percent), Mike’s (10.8 percent), Captain Morgan Rums (10.4 percent), and Absolut Vodkas (10.1 percent).

“Importantly, 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 4,700 deaths a year among young people under the age of 21. More than 70 percent of high school students have consumed alcohol, past studies indicate, 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 lacks studies examining the link between youth exposure to advertising for specific brands and the consumption of those brands—something the researchers will tackle next.

“That is exactly the direction we are going with this research,” Siegel says. “We are now in the process of collecting the data, and our next step will be to examine the relationship between the advertising data and youth brand preferences.”

The research examining alcohol marketing to youth, he says, is similar to earlier work done around smoking, which identified certain companies that were specifically trying to target 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 U.S. 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.

“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,” they write in the study.

Siegel says that one surprising finding of the new study was 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.”

The work of the SPH and Bloomberg School of Public Health researchers examining the links between youth drinking and marketing is being funded by a four-year, $2.4 million grant from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Previous studies led by Siegel have examined consumption patterns among underage drinkers, as well as alcohol advertising in magazines and on the Boston MBTA.

The full study is available here.

Lisa Chedekel can be reached at chedekel@bu.edu.

48 Comments

48 Comments on New Study: Alcohol Brands Underage Drinkers Prefer

  • Daniel T. Moran on 02.26.2013 at 6:27 am

    I think that these companies have done a fabulous job in convincing America that if you are going to be young. glamorous and beautiful, and if you are going to be a great athlete and have a great life, then Bud Light is a must. I grew up at a time when everyone seemed to smoke and drug use was also ubiquitous. There has been a nearly 50 year avalanche of a campaign against those things, especially in the schools, making people who did those things seem like hopeless anti-social low-lifes, out to destroy themselves and society as well. Today, despite some success in reducing tobacco and drug use, one in five Americans still smoke. The rate of drug abuse in 18-25 year olds has shown a steady increase in recent years. To make all matters worse, C. Everett Coop died yesterday. This cause might need a new superhero to take the lead. It will take some innovative thinking and public policy to figure this one out.

    • Kyle on 02.26.2013 at 9:12 am

      I disagree with the intent of the article and that there is some underlying secret to why the youth want to buy these products. The answer is very simple. THESE ARE THE CHEAPEST nationally known alcohols in the United States. I am surprised that Natty Ice or Svedka didn’t make the list, but I am sure they are up there, and the reason kids buy these brands is they are cheap and taste less bad to their under-developed taste buds. There is no secret, its just price for poor kids financially.

      • Mo on 02.26.2013 at 10:58 am

        I agree with you kyle. As a recent college graduate I could have rattled off the “most popular” drinks, having had most of them myself. When drinking with my friends the only factor that really came into play was the PRICE of the alcohol. When you are in debt from student loans you don’t want to pay extra for alcohol. As you get older and actually have a job you can afford to spend more money on better alcohols. It’s not rocket science, it’s logic.

        • SMG Student on 02.26.2013 at 12:22 pm

          You also can’t look and compare the same way that you can when you are 21.

      • Gabriel on 02.28.2013 at 2:27 pm

        You nailed, it Kyle. Notice there is wine, or Scotch, or Cognac, because these kids just don’t know except what they see in the paper. The larger question is why would a university print such a report, if their concern is to prohibit underage drinking? I assume that the number one cocktail is a Long Island Ice Tea, so something else as ridiculous with lots of sweet/cheap alcohol and high buzz factor.

  • Morgan on 02.26.2013 at 7:58 am

    What is it about these brands of Alcohol that don’t taste like alcohol that underage drinkers enjoy? I wonder…

    For a million dollar grant I’m sure I can decipher such a tough puzzel.

    • Leila on 02.26.2013 at 8:49 am

      well said, Morgan!

    • Hector on 02.26.2013 at 2:37 pm

      It’s cheap and can easily get you pretty drunk.

    • Daniela Barquet on 02.26.2013 at 5:31 pm

      Cheap.

    • Uhm. on 02.27.2013 at 9:13 am

      p-u-z-z-l-e

      “puzzel” solved.

    • Gabriel on 02.28.2013 at 2:29 pm

      It’s easier to swallow alcohol, if it tastes like punch. Sorry Morgan, but I’ll be happy to share that million with you.

  • Randall on 02.26.2013 at 8:05 am

    Man,
    Kids these days sure are different. When I was underage I would get harpoon. Not because I liked their ads, “they don’t have any,” but because I just wanted to drink and I refuse to support large corporate businesses.

    • SMG Student on 02.26.2013 at 8:43 am

      I don’t think underage drinkers have too much of a choice. More kind of take what you can get. I would say its lack of advertising by many brands that simply pushes kids towards the names that they know with the biggest marketing budge.

    • K.O on 03.04.2013 at 10:04 pm

      You won’t find Harpoon in cases, and you won’t find it in cans at your local liquor store. Because it is more expensive, it will be bought less. I believe the largest option at blanchard’s is a 12-pack of harpoon.

      Buy a 12 pack of harpoon for $14 or buy 36 cans of bud light for $15-20? If you have money the first option is fine. If you don’t, then you will go with efficiency.

  • Anonymous on 02.26.2013 at 8:21 am

    yea because a 20 year old drinking a beer is equally as bad as a 15 year old being enticed into smoking by cartoons. grow up.

  • Anon on 02.26.2013 at 8:30 am

    1. you needed 2.4 million to figure this out?
    2. marketing is not the answer to underage drinking, if it’s not bud light it’s something else

    • Tombo on 03.05.2013 at 12:21 am

      Exactly! This is almost as bad as the study that found that students who drink more report higher social happiness.

      Really? No wonder the idiots in Congress want to cut scientific funding. Because a bunch of it is getting wasted on stupid things like this.

  • Anon on 02.26.2013 at 9:02 am

    I’m pretty sure that a big part of why kids drink Smirnoff isn’t because of the company’s marketing, but because it’s cheap.

  • mike on 02.26.2013 at 9:22 am

    This just in, the world’s best selling beer is consumed by underage kids. Maybe next they’ll discover that kids “gasp!” smoke marijuana. It’s time to realize that prohibiting a substance serves only to make it more dangerous and stop producing studies that tell us what we already know: kids will drink whatever alcohol is most available.

    • Daniela Barquet on 02.26.2013 at 5:32 pm

      Exactly.

  • anon on 02.26.2013 at 9:40 am

    These are the drinks of choice because they are, in general, the cheapest. It’s not advertising or preference for a brand. It’s pricing and availability – cheap and convenient, and in bulk.

    • frank on 02.26.2013 at 11:50 am

      exactly…availability, convenient. walk into most liquor or convenient stores and what do you see? stacks of bud light, bud, coors light, miller light 30 packs/cases. the majority of young drinkers don’t care, have the knowledge or tastebuds to seek out another option like a microbrew or specialty beer when the major brands are right in front of their face. it dose seem a bit much to spend $2.4 mil to figure this out…

  • Zack on 02.26.2013 at 9:53 am

    This study seems silly we (underage people) know we’re not drinking the best stuff out there and ads don’t make a difference in what we buy, students cheap beer and cheap hard stuff that we can mix with whatever and put in a water bottle

  • Jeff Lambe on 02.26.2013 at 9:56 am

    This guy is making a ridiculous implication by implying that these brands are intentionally marketing to youth and that it is “Budweisers’ problem” that underage drinking exists. Talk about applying your own agenda to a study.
    It says not for under 21 on the bottle what else do you want from them! Go find another scapegoat or field a study on the failed alcohol enforcement policy of this country and put the blame where it belongs.

    • Overlord of the Underclassmen on 02.26.2013 at 10:15 am

      Well put!

    • James on 02.26.2013 at 3:07 pm

      My sentiments exactly. It appears as if the purpose of this study was to solve a problem that doesn’t exist, ie. alcohol companies marketing to minors. With all due respect, I find this statement incredibly naive and all too common amongst academics: “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.”

      These companies are not the leading culprits in the problem of underage drinking by a long shot. The reality is, underage drinking will happen for a multitude of reasons (peer pressure, experimentation, how about just being young?) so to pin the blame on Budweiser is frankly irresponsible. I think the lack of a developed palate and ease of access are easily defensible here, but then, what to spend the $2.4 million grant on but an expensive taste test?

  • AP on 02.26.2013 at 10:21 am

    A 30-rack of Keystone Light or PBR is $20. A twelve pack of Sam Adams is also almost $20.

    If you’re 18, would you rather have 30 beers for $20, or 12?

    • Nathan on 02.26.2013 at 3:14 pm

      Price doesn’t seem to be the largest factor:
      Rank/Brand Use in past 30 days
      1. Bud Light 27.9%
      13. Blue Moon 8.2%
      16. Miller Lite 7.4%
      17. Grey Goose Vodkas 6.7%
      20. Keystone Light 6.0%
      21. Hennessy Cognac 5.6%

      The Northeast was underrepresented in the survey.
      Northeast 15.3%
      Midwest 27.7%
      South 32.5%
      West 24.5%

  • Bobby Bottle Service on 02.26.2013 at 11:15 am

    Hey LOL. Kids these days are very cool very cool as well as in addition to people who drink good vohka. Like vodka orange joose, vodka cram-berry, and vodka goldshlager

  • Gerrie on 02.26.2013 at 11:24 am

    How about this…. Stop trying to enforce a “law” that says you are not “old enough”, or “adult enough” to drink yet can be tried for murder as an adult, buy tobacco, vote for president, and die for our country before you reach that age. This is just more nonsense about people trying to impose their moral judgements onto others. Live and let live. Instead of denying them alcohol let them have a drink once in awhile and the novelty will wear off quite quick.

    • Daniela Barquet on 02.26.2013 at 5:35 pm

      Agreed.

  • joe on 02.26.2013 at 11:28 am

    Man underage drinking has been reduced so much since the MBTA banned alcohol ads in the subway…NOT. They probably dropped natty ice and rubinoff from the study because it made their results statistically insignificant because they are consumed way more than bud or smirnoff, and its most consumed out of unmarked kegs or jungle juice so how the hell do these survey respondents know what they’re drinking anyway?

  • Kevin on 02.26.2013 at 11:32 am

    Jack Daniels is a whiskey not a Bourbon. That is all.

    • Anonymous on 02.26.2013 at 2:25 pm

      This.

    • Alex on 02.28.2013 at 11:39 pm

      Quite right.

  • Chris on 02.26.2013 at 12:07 pm

    Alcohol is not responsible for 4,700 deaths of underage people. Irresponsible drinking and our cultural norm in the area are. Maybe rather than blaming adult beverage companies for their advertising, we should make the drinking age 19 and allow young people to learn to drink socially…

  • Max on 02.26.2013 at 12:53 pm

    I’m so embarrassed to live in this country…

  • Roger on 02.26.2013 at 2:09 pm

    Americans need to accept the fact that college students drink. Prohibition of alcohol has never worked; it certainly isn’t working today. Now we’re trying to futher discourage underage drinking (which has been so successful!) by cracking down on marketing? Great way to spend $2.4 million. It would make a lot more sense to acknowledge the fact that underage kids are drinking and teach them how to drink socially and responsibly. The only thing that having a drinking age of 21 does is encourage binge drinking behind closed doors by college kids that don’t know any better. Other countries with more sensible liquor laws don’t seem to struggle with the same level of alcohol poisoning among young people as here in the U.S.

    • el on 02.26.2013 at 3:35 pm

      This is so true. The drinking age should be 19, like Canada. Not 21. The US is one of seven countries in the world with a drinking age at 21. The others include Kazakhstan, Oman, Pakistan, and Indonesia, all deeply Muslim countries.

  • Ben on 02.26.2013 at 3:15 pm

    You guys are totally right. This isn’t about advertising at all. You’re way too smart to be lured by advertising, which is why cigarette companies didn’t spend inordinate amounts of money targeting youth. Oh they did?
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tobacco_advertising#Targeting_youth

    And why after banning this advertising we didn’t see a decrease in smoking… Oh we did?
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tobacco_advertising#United_States
    http://www.promotionalitemsbuzz.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/03/Trends-in-Cigarrette-Smoking.gif

    Huh, maybe advertising works… I don’t know, let’s ask drug companies…

    • SMG Student on 02.26.2013 at 5:59 pm

      No one is disputing that. More that this is a false logical argument. They are not the same thing. Alcohol is also not addictive in the same way that smoking is.

    • Bro beans on 02.27.2013 at 8:32 pm

      wikipedia is not a reputable source

      • K.O on 03.04.2013 at 10:27 pm

        wikipedia’s accuracy is based on its citations. My organic chemistry professor was all over wikipedia and even encouraged us to use wikipedia for various chemical properties, structures, and mechanisms.

  • Tim on 02.26.2013 at 3:37 pm

    I wonder who they are referring to when they use the word “youths.” More and more I have heard the terms underage drinker and underage intermixed, and I’d like everyone to remember that an 18 year old is legally an adult… not a minor.

  • Anonymous on 02.26.2013 at 3:45 pm

    Those brands are extremely cheap and readily available in every single liquor/grocery store. It’s not rocket science. The stupidity of this country amazes me sometimes.

  • arf on 02.26.2013 at 4:33 pm

    I also agree with the cheapness theory. I was in another country where it is legal to drink at 18, in spite of this many young people still bought “Perfect”, for those who have been unfortunate enough to try it, it’s pretty obvious that you get what you’ve paid for.
    That also being said I noticed a bunch of Araq at social gatherings there as well. . .
    So I don’t know if it’s totally an advertising thing, it’s also potentially a cultural one too. You get a) what’s cheap and b)what you’ve seen other people serve. My thoughts on why stuff you’ve seen elsewhere is because it’s familiar, nobody your serving will wonder what they’re drinking and the fact that you’ve probably tried it before means you feel better about spending your limited funds on that specific drink

  • K.O on 03.04.2013 at 10:07 pm

    I would like to point out why America is broke. It is because we spend a 2.4mil grant on something the average layperson, could figure out in 5 seconds.

  • Jason T on 04.19.2013 at 5:14 am

    This is a much greater issue than is being pointed out here its not merely marketing to blame, a culture of drinking among adolescents has been building for well over a decade the introduction of ‘ready to drink’ alcoholic beverages has spurned this culture of drinking amongst the younger generation this along with high profiled marketing campaigns accessible to the young via TV (at inappropriate times) and poster has now given strong foundations to this now established drinking culture among the young, but lets also not forget how pop culture has influenced this rise in drinking, glamorizing the effects of alcohol as something that is fun and social,encouraging excess and leading teenagers to alcohol abuse.

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