Last summer, a study published in the medical journal The Lancet showed that alcohol is not only deadly, but that there is no safe level for its consumption.
“We now understand that alcohol is one of the major causes of death in the world today,” Lancet Editor Richard Horton said at the time. “We need to act urgently to prevent these millions of deaths. And we can.”
But have we? Judging by the marketing — both official and unofficial — of this deadly drug, we appear to have doubled down on drinking, targeting not just adults, but children.
There are numerous alcohol ads during sporting events that kids also watch. Celebrities endorse alcohol brands, bars set up kids’ play areas so parents can drink while their kids are nearby, and restaurant servers are sure to offer parents seconds on alcoholic beverages without ever asking if the kids need another milk. Some women have even taken to calling wine “mommy juice” as if it helps them with parenting. And on Halloween, parents are now carrying beer or wine with them while they take the kids trick-or-treating, or they are given beer or wine at homes when they should be focused on their children’s’ safety.
Imitation is the strongest form of learning. It's how we learn to talk, walk, and develop many of our beliefs, superstitions, or idiosyncrasies. It is not uncommon, therefore, for kids to learn how to drink like their parents.
And then there’s the direct plea to young people to imbibe, like the methods used by one particular beer company, which tells students to “study, sleep, [drink our beer], repeat" and offers the opportunity to win $50,000 toward tuition if drinkers get a special color tab when they open a can of beer. Are we really supposed to believe that these ploys are only geared to graduate students over 21?
I can tell you from my 43 years of experience treating people with alcohol addiction that we need to seriously reduce the amount of alcohol marketing young people see every day. This is backed up by research from Baltimore’s own Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, which in 2017 published the first review of long-term studies in more than a decade on exposure to alcohol marketing. They found youth who are more exposed to alcohol marketing are at higher risk of drinking across continents and cultures.
It is no secret that adolescents from middle school through college suffer consequences from alcohol consumption, including an increased risk for accidents and injuries, STDs, poor grades, suicide and violence. Every year over 5,000 kids under the age of 21 die after abusing alcohol.
The crux of the issue is profit for the beverage industry. Despite all the negative effects that alcohol has on our youth, creative ways to get the family involved in drinking alcohol continue unabated through social media, commercials, product placement and subtle influence.
Recently, New York City announced it was banning alcohol ads on most city property, including bus shelters and newsstands. Dr. Oxiris Barbot, the New York City health commissioner and former Baltimore commissioner of health said, “We know exposure to alcohol advertising can lead to drinking more alcohol, more often behavior that can be harmful and even fatal.” Cities like Baltimore and others across the United States should follow New York’s lead.
Almost a year after the pivotal research on there being no safe level of alcohol was published, we as a culture should decide if it's more important to improve the bottom line of the beverage industry or try to keep our children safe from the harms associated with it.
I know which I choose.
Larry Fishel (firstname.lastname@example.org) works in the field of substance abuse and impulse control. He is a partner in a state certified substance abuse program and a member of the Combating Underaged Drinking Coalition for Baltimore County. The opinions in this piece are his own.