The campaign against underage drinking targets adults

Jacob Sullum

9/12/2003 12:00:00 AM - Jacob Sullum

The Federal Trade Commission recently exonerated the alcohol industry from the charge that it's trying to seduce underage drinkers with flavored malt beverages such as Smirnoff Ice and Bacardi Silver, which critics call "alcopops." The commission, which prefers the less inflammatory term "FMB," reported to Congress that "adults appear to be the intended target of FMB marketing." Its investigation "found no evidence of targeting underage consumers."

Anti-alcohol activists replied that the industry's intent is beside the point. "It's impossible to construct an advertisement that appeals to a 21-year-old, on his 21st birthday, and doesn't appeal to someone who's 18 years old or maybe even 16," said George Hacker, director of the Alcohol Policies Project at the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

Hacker is right, which is why it's unreasonable to expect manufacturers of alcoholic beverages to aim their marketing with laser-like precision. They should not have to ignore the lucrative market of drinkers in their 20s simply because some of their ads might also be attractive to teenagers.

Yet that is the implication of a National Academy of Sciences (NAS) report on underage drinking that was released the same day as the FTC report. The authors insist the industry has a "social obligation" to keep its ads away from people under the age of 21.

The NAS committee concedes that "a causal link between alcohol advertising and underage alcohol use has not been clearly established." But it says the possibility of a connection means that "alcohol companies should refrain from displaying commercial messages encouraging alcohol use to audiences known to include a significant number of children or teens when these messages are known to be highly attractive to young people."

Acknowledging the constitutional problems with trying to impose such restrictions by force, the NAS committee settles for the threat of force. "In the event that the industry fails to respond satisfactorily to this challenge," the report warns, "the case for government action might become more compelling."

Only if you think the government is justified in prohibiting messages because it worries how people will respond to them. Assuming that teenagers drink more than they would in the absence of advertising (a doubtful proposition), we are still talking about speech, which should be countered not with force but with more speech -- from parents, from teachers, even from activists like George Hacker.

Advertising restrictions are not the only way in which the agenda laid out in the NAS report would impinge upon the rights of adults. The committee also recommends higher alcohol taxes, suggesting that the levy on beer should be tripled.

It's not clear how effective higher taxes would be at deterring underage drinking. The FTC says "younger minors obtain alcohol primarily through noncommercial means" (e.g., from a neighbor's refrigerator), and the NAS committee notes that "a large percentage of college youth report they do not have to pay anything for alcohol, presumably because they are at a party where someone else is supplying the alcohol." Higher taxes might mean emptier refrigerators or fewer parties, but the ultimate impact on underage drinking probably would be small.

More fundamentally, raising alcohol prices to deter underage drinking is like raising the cost of tickets for R-rated movies to deter 13-year-olds who sneak in without the requisite parent or guardian. In both cases, the appropriate solution is to enforce the age restriction, not to punish responsible adults for the misbehavior of other people's kids.

Another way the policies endorsed in the NAS report affect adults is easily overlooked: When it comes to drinking, current laws put some adults -- 18-to-20-year-olds -- in the same category as children. "Explaining convincingly -- to young people as well as adults -- why alcohol is permissible for 21-year-olds but not for anyone younger is a difficult but essential task," the NAS committee says. "The problem is exacerbated because the age of majority is higher for alcohol than it is for any other right or privilege defined by adulthood."

The report mentions that some people see this situation as not only unfair but counterproductive, since most teenagers are drinking by the time they graduate high school and are ill-prepared to do so responsibly by a policy that treats them like 5-year-olds, demanding abstinence rather than temperance. But that issue, the authors conclude, is beyond the scope of the report requested by Congress. The really interesting questions often are.