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April 14, 2004

Our Side Of The Issue: Beer Industry Counters Criticism


Jeff Becker, President, Beer Institute, and David Rehr, President, National Beer Wholesalers Association, issue a thorough rebuttal of recent anti-industry accusations, particularly issues related to underage drinking.

College Athletics Clips recently ran a commentary by Dwayne Proctor of the Robert Woods Johnson Foundation in which he delineated his opinion of the inappropriateness of advertising beer on college sports TV while alcohol abuse continues to be a huge problem among college students. Mr. Proctor’s commentary--March Madness: Another Slam Dunk For The Alcohol Industry?—can be found in the Guest Commentaries section of College Athletics Clips.

In an effort to present both sides of the issue, College Athletics Clips contacted The Beer Institute to ask for the beer industry’s viewpoint. The following is the response from Jeff Becker, President, Beer Institute, and David Rehr, President, National Beer Wholesalers Association.


Last month, Representative Tom Osborne introduced House Resolution 575 in which he called on the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) to end all alcohol advertising during radio and television broadcasts of collegiate sporting events as a way of discouraging underage drinking. We believe that it is important to set the record straight regarding the incorrect assertions and questionable interpretation of data cited in Representative Osborne’s Resolution. It is critical that policy decisions be based on facts.

The men and women who make up America’s beer industry are responsible members of society, many of whom have children in college as well. We have long articulated our position on illegal underage drinking: we’re against it. Our message is very clear--if you’re under 21, respect the law, and if you’re 21 and older and choose to drink, do so responsibly.

As an example of the incorrect assertions in this resolution, it stated that there were 939 alcohol ads during the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. In fact, in the 26 games of the 2003 tournament, only 113 alcohol beverage ads aired on the national telecast. Given that a typical game lasts approximately two hours, that number of ads equates to one minute of alcohol beverage ads per hour, the limit set by the NCAA in its agreement with CBS Sports, which broadcasts the games.

But more important than how many ads are aired is the audience composition of those who watch these games. Beer companies advertise on college broadcasts because the vast majority of people who watch and attend college sporting events are of legal drinking age. They are our customers. According to 2003 Nielsen Media data, 88 percent of college football and 87 percent of college basketball television viewers are 21 or older. Last year, the NCAA basketball tournament attracted an audience of 88 percent adult (21 and above) and, so far, this year’s tournament has an adult audience of 89 percent. A 2002 ESPN poll found that 76.6 percent of fans attending college football games and 71.5 percent of fans attending college basketball games are of legal drinking age.

All of our members’ media placements follow the Beer Institute Advertising and Marketing Code, which now requires that beer advertisements be placed only on broadcast programs where at least 70 percent of the audience is reasonably expected to be above the legal purchase age. This standard reflects the age demographics of the United States, which show that approximately 70 percent of the public is age 21 or older, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Importantly, this placement standard was reviewed and cited as a “significant improvement” by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) in its 2003 report to Congress.

The Resolution also portrays alcohol abuse on university campuses as spiraling out of control. In fact, the opposite is true. According to the federally sponsored National Survey on Drug Use and Health (2002), 81 percent of 18-22 year-old undergraduates are not heavy drinkers. Likewise, the percentage of college freshmen who drink beer either frequently or occasionally is down 39 percent since 1982 and at its lowest level since the survey began in 1966, according to the American Freshman Survey, sponsored by the University of California-Los Angeles and the American Council on Education. And according to another government-funded nationally representative study done by the University of Michigan (2003), the percentage of high-school seniors—next year’s college freshmen—who reported having a drink in the past 30 days is 17 percent lower than in 1990 and down 32 percent since 1982. This indicator is at its lowest level since the study began in 1975.

Because this Resolution is based on the flawed assumption that alcohol advertising causes underage drinking, the Resolution will do nothing to address this issue. Research among youths themselves confirms that the greatest influences on their decisions to drink or refrain from drinking are family and friends. When the Roper Youth Report (2003) asked college-bound youth ages 13-17 to identify the greatest influence on their decisions about drinking, 74 percent cited their parents as the number one group they listened to on this issue, followed by best friends. Advertising ranked dead last.

For more than 20 years, the nation’s brewers and wholesalers have worked hard in the fight against underage drinking in the college environment. We have demonstrated this commitment to being part of the solution to all forms of alcohol abuse through community-based programs that encourage parents to talk with their children about drinking, programs that help train servers on how to sell and serve alcohol beverages responsibly, and programs that help retailers prevent sales to minors.

At the college level, we have supported campus programs that focus student attention on education and awareness, emphasizing personal responsibility and respect for the law. These programs include, among others, unrestricted grants to colleges such as the University of Virginia, Florida State University, Georgetown University, California State University at Fresno, and Michigan State University to establish social norms programs. This positive approach reminds college students that the large majority of their peers make healthy and responsible decisions about drinking. A recent comprehensive report issued by the government’s National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) categorized social norms and other approaches supported by the industry as effective or promising.

In addition, our members have worked with BACCHUS (Boost Alcohol Consciousness Concerning the Health of University Students), the largest and oldest peer education program with more than 700 chapters on campuses across the country. Working in conjunction with the NCAA and NASULGC (the National Association of State Universities and Land Grant Colleges), we are also developing a guidebook and implementation plan for colleges to address “safe celebrations” in their campus communities. This program is designed to help prevent inappropriate student behavior surrounding major college sporting events. Finally, and probably most germane to the issue addressed by this Resolution, one of our members has worked with the NCAA Foundation for nearly fifteen years to fight underage and abusive drinking on college campuses, through a $2.75 million grant to the NCAA Foundation to endow their “Choices” program. This program allows NCAA member colleges and universities to develop personalized alcohol education programs on their campuses. Since its inception in 1990, more than 125 universities have benefited from these grants. “Choices” programs have also been included in the NCAA’s “Life Skills” curriculum as model alcohol educational programs.

Turning off the television set or censoring advertising will do nothing to stop underage drinking or abusive drinking on campus. Staying involved in young people’s lives and being diligent on the retail front can.

The web address of The Beer Institute is: www.beerinstitute.org

NOTE: Any and all views, thoughts, opinions and advocacies as stated in this article are those of the authors, and not College Athletics Clips.