Liquor industry reaching millions of teens with alcohol pop ads, critics say

Tuesday, July 16th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Slick commercials for fruit-flavored alcohol drinks are luring millions of teenagers _ proof that the liquor industry's voluntary advertising guidelines aren't working, consumer advocates said Tuesday.

``Those ads put liquor brand names right in kids' faces,'' said George Hacker, director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest's alcohol policies project. He called for tighter guidelines to minimize youth exposure.

A survey, taken by a polling firm for CSPI, estimated that 22 million teenagers _ 3 out of 4 people age 12-18 _ watch television after 9 p.m. on school nights, when alcohol ads routinely air. Six in 10 youths could name a specific company or brand that advertises during that time.

Ads for ``malternative'' beverages featuring loud music and attractive young people laughing or dancing are aimed at teens, critics said.

Like beer, the beverages are based on malt but are usually clear and flavored. Last year, CSPI complained that the sweetened malt drinks are intended as bridges to other forms of alcohol.

The Federal Trade Commission, after an investigation that included a 10-city retail placement survey, a review of advertising and an analysis of internal alcohol company documents, including market and consumer research records, concluded that there wasn't sufficient evidence to conclude that the beverages were being targeted to minors.

To clear up labeling confusion, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms announced earlier this year that makers of certain flavored malt drinks would be forbidden from advertising them as containing vodka, rum or other liquor.

``CSPI's claim was without merit then, and it's without merit now,'' said Lisa Hawkins, spokeswoman for the Distilled Spirits Council. Liquor industry guidelines specify that ads should target audiences that are primarily adult.

Beer and wine are widely advertised on television, and several national cable channels and hundreds of local stations accept commercials for distilled spirits. Broadcast networks have mostly refused to hawk hard liquor for fear of seeming to be socially irresponsible, even after liquor marketers lifted their own voluntary restriction on such advertising six years ago.

``More `alcopop' ads are reaching more kids _ and resonating,'' said Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, who has started meeting with liquor companies to discuss the issue.

One of the state attorneys general who spearheaded their tobacco lawsuit, Blumenthal said the liquor advertising issue ``may well merit legal action under our state consumer protection laws.'' There's no consensus yet among the states on how to proceed, he said.

Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., asked the FTC Monday to revisit the issue to ensure that voluntary ad standards are adequately clear and strong.

The FTC would consider reviewing any new evidence that the liquor industry is targeting underage buyers, said J. Howard Beales III, director of the consumer protection bureau.