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Profiting from children: Alcohol industry making money

Two new studies demonstrate the need for a tougher approach with the alcohol industry and irresponsible adults who give alcohol to kids. According to the first study, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, underage drinkers consume 20 percent of the drinks sold or more than 800,000 drinks a month.

A second study, released by The Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth at Georgetown University, shows that the alcohol industry targets and advertises its products to underage youth on radio. This is the third report that concludes that this underage market is overexposed to alcohol advertising. The other reports looked at TV and magazines.

The alcohol industry profits from children and has no economic interest to reduce underage drinking. Underage drinking accounts for $22.5 billion of the total $116.2 billion spent by consumers on alcoholic beverages. This, coupled with the fact that the average age at which children begin drinking is 12 years old, presents an alarming cost to society.

The health risks of underage drinking are clearly documented. Teen-age drinking has negative effects on brain function and increases the likelihood of risky behavior. Alcohol impairs decision-making on sexual behavior, which may result in teen-age pregnancy or sexually transmitted diseases. Poor judgment also leads to drunk driving.

A recent AMA study details the neurological consequences resulting from adolescent drinking, including impaired speech and memory, possible permanent neurological damage and increased risk of stroke in young adulthood. The National Household Survey on Drug Abuse reports a 33 percent increase since 1975 of the proportion of children who begin drinking in eighth grade or earlier.

The alcohol industry claims it does not target children, yet this is clearly not the case. Alcohol ads are one of the most powerful influences on youth who are six times more susceptible to advertising than adults.

Alcohol ads lure children with images portraying drinking as part of socializing with friends, having fun and being hip, young adults.

It is up to the community to alter the environment that promotes and encourages underage drinking. Members of Pennsylvanians Against Underage Drinking (PAUD) are working on these problems, but we need everyone's help.

Our elected officials have given us two new laws to prevent sales to minors. Now, it's up to us to make those laws work.

The first law, effective in 2001, is a responsible alcohol management program that includes training of servers and bartenders. The second law, effective this year, allows for alcohol compliance checks, similar to those for tobacco. In addition, we need a beer keg-tagging law to further reduce youth access to alcohol from irresponsible adults who buy kegs for kids.

Underage drinking is a risky activity. If we truly care about children and families, then we must move quickly to regulate the alcohol industry to decrease their "kiddy" profits and protect the health and safety of our youth.

Bowman, CPS, is the prevention, education and DUI coordinator at Twin Lakes Center in Somerset and chair of the board of Pennsylvanians Against Underage Drinking.

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