Expert Commentary

Brand-specific consumption of alcohol among underage youth in the United States

2013 study from Boston University and Johns Hopkins providing the first available national estimates of youth alcohol brand preference.

Nearly 70% of American youth report having consumed alcohol before they are legally of age. Whether it’s a sip of wine at the family dinner table or a flask of rum smuggled from their parents’ liquor cabinet, most are no strangers to alcoholic beverages by the time they turn 21.

To understand consumption patterns among minors and possibly reduce future alcoholism or binge drinking, in 2004 the National Academy of Sciences proposed further research on how different types of alcohol appeal to youth. It suggested that knowledge of how youth were drawn to particular brands would enable “the public to judge whether a company’s marketing practices [were] attracting a disproportionate number of underage consumers.” Such evidence would put the public in a position “to bring market pressure to bear on the relevant company. And, of course, if the data suggest intentional targeting, or reckless disregard for the effects of the marketing on underage drinking, regulatory intervention might be undertaken.”

Indeed, significant business and economic interests are at stake. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that “people aged 12 to 20 years drink 11% of all alcohol consumed in the United States. More than 90% of this alcohol is consumed in the form of binge drinks.” Nearly 9% of drinkers aged 12 to 20 reported purchasing their own alcohol the last time they drank in the past month, according to data from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. A 2005 study from Georgetown University notes that “alcohol companies have placed significant amounts of advertising where youth are more likely per capita to be exposed to it than adults.”

Following up on the recommendation from the National Academy of Sciences, researchers at Boston University and Johns Hopkins University conducted an online survey of 1,032 teenagers, inquiring about consumption patterns in the past 30 days. In their 2013 study “Brand-Specific Consumption of Alcohol Among Underage Youth in the United States,” published in Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, they found that young people do identify with particular brands.

The study’s findings include:

  • Half of the youth surveyed said they participated in “heavy episodic drinking,” consuming more than five drinks in a row at some point in the last 30 days.
  • Beer and spirits were the alcohol of choice among youth; 68.9% said they drank beer and 68.7% reported to have drank spirits. These were followed by flavored alcoholic beverages (49.9%) and wine (31.6%).
  • The seven most popular beer brands accounted for nearly half (48.2%) of the market share. These included Bud Light, Budweiser, Coors, Miller Lite, Corona Extra Light, Natural Light and Coors Light.
  • The favored brands of rum included Captain Morgan, Bacardi, Malibu and Admiral Nelson, representing 76.4% of all rum consumption. Among tequila brands named were Jose Cuervo, Fat Ass, Patron and 1800, which accounted for 68% of the market share. Favored vodka brands included Grey Goose, Smirnoff, Absolut and UV, which represented 41.7% of the market share.
  • Those surveyed frequently misclassified brands by alcoholic beverage type, researchers said. Of 198 teens listing “other” brands, there were 90 misclassifications.

Limitations of the study include a low response rate (less than 44% answered the initial inquiry) and the fact that few African-American or low-income youth participated. However, the underlying finding remains unaffected: That young people stick to a few “favored” brands. This result contrasts with adult consumption patterns: Whereas two-thirds of all spirits consumption is spread among 65 brands for adults, for youth two-thirds of consumption is concentrated on 34 brands.

“Despite potential limitations these survey data are valuable, as they are the first available national estimates of youth alcohol brand preference,” the authors concluded. “Alcohol-prevention programs and policies can now target specific brands, and advocacy efforts can focus on specific companies that manufacture the products most involved in problem drinking behavior among youth.”

Related research: For state-by-state figures on underage alcohol consumption, see this 2012 report from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth, at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, provides comprehensive facts and data. Further, a 2011 study published in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs looks at the age-old question of whether or not it is better for young people to be introduced to alcohol in family settings. It concludes: “Providing opportunities for drinking in supervised contexts did not inhibit alcohol use or harmful use…. [These results] lead us to suggest that policies should not encourage parents to drink with their children nor provide opportunities to supervise their use.”

Tags: youth, crime, law, safety, drugs, children