Liquor vs. Beer -- and CSPI

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The American Medical Association took out a full-page ad in the February 27 New York Times, chastising NBC for deciding to run hard liquor ads, putting impressionable teens at risk. The AMA has thereby compounded a mistake begun by the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI).

For the past two months, CSPI has been criticizing the NBC television network because NBC has decided to break with tradition and accept liquor ads. CSPI contends that showing liquor ads on network TV will have dire effects on America's youth because the ads will introduce liquor to young people who are under the legal drinking age.

Of course, the misuse of alcohol by young people is an important problem in the United States. As the mother of a fifteen year-old, I would be the last person to dispute this. But I believe the CSPI/AMA campaign against broadcast advertising for liquor is misguided.

The problem here is that CSPI is ignoring two crucial points:

(1) Beer and wine are already extensively advertised on network television.

(2) Liquor is no worse than beer and wine.

Alcohol Is Alcohol...

Alcohol is alcohol, and all three types of alcoholic beverages contain it. In fact, standard-size servings of each of the three types of alcoholic beverages (a 12-oz. can of beer, a 5-oz. glass of wine, and a mixed drink containing 1.5 oz. of 80-proof liquor) all contain approximately the same amount of pure alcohol. That means that each of these drinks has the same effect on the drinker's judgment, coordination, and health.

Many people mistakenly believe that beer is less potent than other types of alcoholic beverages, but that is not really true. Although the _percentage_ of alcohol in beer is lower than the percentage in wine or liquor, the amount of alcohol per serving of beer is not. Beer is usually consumed in relatively large servings that contain as much alcohol as the typically smaller servings of wine or liquor.

The people who teach teens and their parents about alcohol want them to know that all types of alcoholic beverages are equally risky. For example, in an excellent pamphlet called Make a Difference: Talk to Your Child About Alcohol, the federal government's National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism says, "Beer and wine are not 'safer' than liquor" and points out that all three types of alcoholic beverages "have the same effects on the body and mind."

Similarly, two of the misconceptions that MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving) corrects in its online guide "Myths About Alcohol for Teens" are (1) "You'll get drunk a lot quicker with hard liquor than with a beer or wine cooler" and (2) "Switching between beer, wine, and liquor will make you more drunk than sticking to one type of alcohol." As MADD points out, "Your blood alcohol content is what determines how drunk you are. Not the flavors you selected. Alcohol is alcohol."

Many state drivers' manuals carry the same message. The Maryland Driver's Handbook (which I borrowed from my soon-to-be-driving son) says, "[H]ow much alcohol gets into the blood depends primarily on how much alcohol is in the drinks taken...Thus, two ounces of pure alcohol taken into the stomach within a period of one hour will result in about the same blood alcohol content whether consumed as martinis, straight shots, highballs, wine, beer, or a mixture of these."

...But Young People Don't Know It

Unfortunately, a lot of young people don't know these facts. A 1999 survey of fifteen to twenty year-olds showed that by a six-to-one margin, these young people believed that it's riskier for teenagers to drink liquor than beer and that teens are more likely to get drunk from liquor than beer. CSPI cites this survey on their Web site, presumably because it shows that young people think that liquor is dangerous. But I believe that it also shows something else. It shows that young people are misinformed. And because they are misinformed, they may put themselves or others at risk. For example, they may think that it's OK to drive because they have "only" been drinking beer.

If CSPI were to argue in favor of increased restrictions on all types of alcohol advertising, they would at least be consistent. There was a thoughtful exchange of opinions on this topic on ACSH's Web site a few years ago. But there is no scientific justification for placing restrictions on the advertising for one type of alcoholic beverage that don't apply to ads for other types of alcoholic beverages. Policies that treat the three types of alcoholic beverages unequally may even be harmful if they perpetuate the misconception that different types of alcoholic beverages have different effects in the human body.

Admittedly, CSPI's decision to oppose liquor advertising on network television is a popular one, and many people agree with the organization's viewpoint. In a survey commissioned by CSPI, 68% of adults said that they opposed NBC's action and an even higher percentage said that they supported the other networks' decision to continue voluntarily refraining from accepting liquor advertising. But that's not science. That's just popular opinion, and popular opinion doesn't always reflect scientific facts.

Funny, we thought that the "S" in CSPI stood for science.