WASHINGTON, DC – Longitudinal studies, touted by advocacy groups as showing a causal link between alcohol ads and youth drinking, are scientifically flawed, according to a comprehensive review of advertising studies by Jon Nelson, Professor Emeritus of Economics at Penn State University, published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.
In a recent review of 20 longitudinal studies, which purport to show that advertising causes youth drinking, Nelson found “significant econometric and statistical problems, which preclude a causal interpretation.”
Nelson identified “substantial shortcomings” in his review of the studies including those often cited by advocacy groups, such as the Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth (CAMY), that claim a causal link between alcohol ads and underage drinking.
“Despite the weaknesses in the studies and reviews, strong policy recommendations often are presented,” such as calls for bans of all alcohol advertising including at sponsored sports events and similar venues, said Nelson. “My conclusion is that the emphasis on advertising bans and similar regulations in the public health literature is misplaced,” stated Nelson, who has studied the effects of advertising for 25 years.
Nelson concluded, “[T]he important lessons from this review are that, first, studies using longitudinal surveys have not established that advertising is a causal factor for youth drinking…and, second, these studies cannot be used to support recommendations for advertising and marketing bans.”
Among the studies’ flaws, Nelson reported that there were problems with how researchers selected people to participate in their studies and how they drew conclusions from the data they collected.
He added his “results raise important issues regarding both internal and external validity threats to research conclusions, which are largely ignored by longitudinal researchers and public health reviewers.”
Peter Cressy, President of the Distilled Spirits Council, commented on the study stating, “The distilled spirits industry remains steadfastly opposed to underage drinking, but as this study confirms, calls to restrict alcohol advertising to prevent this illegal activity are misguided and will not effectively address the serious issue of underage drinking. It is incumbent upon those who are charged with developing public policy on underage drinking to carefully scrutinize the data and formulate policies that are unbiased and evidence-based solutions.”
Cressy said scientific research makes it clear that parental influence is the most powerful deterrent to illegal underage drinking, and government data show a continued long-term decline in underage drinking.
Further, he stated that data from the National Academy of Sciences, the Federal Trade Commission and other institutions show the overwhelming majority of youth who drink obtain alcohol through non-commercial sources, such as family, friends or other adults over 21.
While advertising has not been shown to cause underage drinking, the distilled spirits industry is committed to responsible advertising and has a strong Code in place to ensure that the ads are responsible and directed to adults.
The distilled spirits industry’s rigorous approach to self-regulation has been pointed to as a model for other industries by the Federal Trade Commission and has been commended on numerous occasions by regulators and industry watchdogs.
The Federal Trade Commission has reviewed alcohol advertising on several occasions and has concluded that distilled spirits advertising is directed to adults and that the industry’s self-regulatory measures are “rigorous” and effective.