likelihood that they will become alcohol consumers as young people rather than waiting until they are adults. It is abundantly clear that young people attend to and are attracted to some alcohol advertisements. Moreover, young people who are drinkers or who are predisposed to drinking are more attracted to these advertisements than other young people (Martin et al., 2002; Casswell and Zhang, 1998; Wyllie et al., 1998a, 1998b; Grube and Wallack, 1994). Third, persistent exposure of young people to messages encouraging drinking by young people (even if they appear to be 21) contradicts and interferes with the implementation of the nation’s goal of discouraging underage drinking. In this respect, the emphasis is less on causation than on contradiction and ambiguity.
The ongoing dispute about whether alcohol advertising causes underage drinking is tied to the legal controversy over whether government-imposed bans or restrictions on alcohol advertising would violate the First Amendment because the constitutionality of any significant limitations on advertising imposed by the government would probably turn on the strength of the evidence on causation. However, this emphasis on the constitutionality of government intervention, and the accompanying preoccupation with proof of causation, overlooks the paramount importance of self-regulation by the alcohol industry. The industry has the prerogative—indeed, the social obligation—to regulate its own practices and to refrain from marketing products or engaging in promotional activities that have a particular appeal to youngsters, irrespective of whether such practices can be proven to “cause” underage drinking.
In an important report on alcohol advertising, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) (1999, p. 3) emphasized the virtues of self-regulation:
Self-regulation often can be more prompt, flexible, and effective than the government regulation. It can permit application of the accumulated judgment and experience of an industry to issues that are sometimes difficult for the government to define with bright line rules. With respect to advertising practices, self-regulation is an appropriate mechanism because many forms of government intervention raise First Amendment concerns.
The FTC went on to fault the alcohol industry for the weakness of its current self-regulatory efforts, and that was the starting point for this committee’s deliberations. The committee believes that greater self-restraint by the alcohol industry in its marketing practices is an essential component of a sound national strategy for reducing underage drinking.
In sum, the committee regards the empirical dispute about whether advertising causes underage drinking, and whether the existing evidence of causation is strong enough to justify government restriction under the First Amendment, to be an unnecessary distraction from the most important task at hand—strengthening industry self-regulation and promoting corporate