The percentage of teenage girls who drink alcoholic beverages is rising faster than that of boys and, on average, the girls take their first drink at age 13, the American Medical Association said yesterday in reporting the findings of two surveys.
The AMA contends that a class of beverages informally known as "alcopops" is partly to blame, and it is warning doctors to educate teenagers about the dangers of such sweet drinks.
The polls indicate that teenage girls are most vulnerable to the marketing of the beverages, which contain 5 percent to 7 percent alcohol and have such names as Rick's Spiked Lemonade, Doc Otis' Hard Lemon Flavored Malt Beverage, Mike's Hard Lemonade, and Hooper's Hooch Lemon Brew.
The fruit-flavored drinks come in colorful packaging and are also called "girlie drinks," malternatives, RTDs (ready to drink) or FABs (flavored alcoholic beverages).
"We're alarmed and concerned with these findings," said the American Medical Association's president-elect, Dr. J. Edward Hill, a family doctor in Tupelo, Miss. "Any alcohol is a drug with side effects. Alcopops are anything but fun and harmless."
The AMA wants to establish "a dialogue between doctors, parents and teenagers," he said. "Kids are smart. They need to hear that there are significant medical and behavioral consequences to drinking alcopops."
The AMA has created a poster about the dangers of alcopops and will be asking physicians to place them in their waiting rooms or exam rooms.
In one survey, 31 percent of teenage girls said they had drunk an alcopop in the past six months, compared with 19 percent of boys. The poll found that girls consumed more of all types of alcoholic beverages than boys.
A second poll surveyed adults.
The polls found that half of the teen girls said they learned of the drinks from magazine ads and half from TV commercials. Only 34 percent of women 21 and older said they had seen such advertising.
Hill said he and his colleagues believe that companies are using these sweet, flavored beverages as "gateway" beverages to attract young drinkers.
Jeff Becker, president of the Beer Institute, which represents the industry, said the marketing of "flavored alcohol beverages ... is directed at adults. The Federal Trade Commission has examined the marketing ... and concluded that these products were marketed to adults."
The FTC report concluded that "for the most part, members of the industry comply with the current standards ... which prohibit blatant appeals to young audiences." But it also called for improvements, including a prohibition of ads "with substantial underage appeal."
Becker said brewers "share the AMA concern over illegal underage drinking."
Fizzy like soft drinks
However, Laurie Leiber, a spokeswoman for the Marin Institute, an alcohol industry watchdog, said evidence that these companies are marketing to teenagers "comes in the form of these products ... they are sweet, fizzy and fruity like soft drinks. The advertising is hip, and the single-serving, ice-cold bottles have the look and feel of sports drinks."
The AMA reported that almost one in six teen girls reported being sexually active after drinking in the past six months, and one in four who have tried alcopops have driven after drinking or have been in a car with a driver who had been drinking.
Drinking increases the risk of teen pregnancy and rape, said AMA's Richard Yoast, director of the association's office of alcohol and other drug abuse. Chronic heavy drinking has been tied to breast cancer, osteoporosis, menstrual disorders and heart disease, according to the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.
The federal government estimates that more than 10 million Americans under the age of 21 drink alcohol, and more than 7 million of them are binge drinkers.
Newsday is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.