Bottomless Pitchers ; the Flow of Alcohol Ads and Cheap-Drink Specials Aimed at College Students May Be One Factor in High Rates of Binge Drinking

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Amid pomp and ceremony, students filed into Cox Arena at San Diego State University to hear stirring speeches, collect diplomas - and get one last burst of beer advertising.

While listening to messages about graduates' goals last week, the audience took in another message from beer banners on the scoreboard overhead: It was Miller time.

No alcohol was allowed during the ceremony, of course, but the Miller Brewing Co. can afford to be patient. Its distributor has a contract to display signs in Cox and at the school's baseball stadium until 2012. In addition, Anheuser-Busch has a contract at the football stadium.

Alcohol advertising has long been a fixture on campuses. Still, it is coming in for more scrutiny. With stubbornly high levels of student alcohol abuse, demand is growing for restrictions on alcohol pitches to college students and for more research into their effects.

Alcohol-abuse prevention efforts over the past decade have not even dented the solid 40-plus percentage rate of college students who "binge drink," or drink to get drunk. And ubiquitous alcohol marketing may be a key reason, some who study the issue now say.

Personal responsibility has long been the main thrust of prevention efforts, focusing on raising students' awareness and changing their attitudes. But some experts say that education hasn't been enough.

"It seems that other powerful forces are driving the college binge-drinking phenomenon," Henry Wechsler, director of College Alcohol Studies at the Harvard Schools of Public Health, said in March. "Greater attention should be paid to factors that impact the environment around students, which aggressively promotes alcohol use."

Such factors include cheap-drink specials, which proliferate on many campuses, he and others agree.

At least four major reports on underage and college drinking issued since January cite alcohol-marketing effects on students. One calls for an outright ban on TV alcohol advertising. Another cites a poll showing that 88 percent of college students' parents are outraged by ads via e-mail, Internet, and direct mail that tout spring-break drinking locations.

Setting the norm

In the 1970s, before laws raised the legal drinking age to 21, beer companies sent representatives to pitch beer events on campus. In the 1980s, Spuds MacKenzie, the Anheuser-Busch beer mutt, and the "Bud girls" targeted the college crowd. Giant inflatable cans of beer were once common on fraternity-house lawns.

Now, beer banners notwithstanding, the visibility of major breweries on campus has declined. Of far more concern today are student newspaper ads or fliers from local bars pitching "bar crawls," 2-for-1 drinks, and penny pitchers.

These promotions plastered across campus are only the most immediate message, though. Bars near campus, television, and the Internet add other layers to send a steady, clear message: You are expected to drink if you want to fit in socially.

"One of the ways advertising has an effect is by making alcohol seem socially acceptable and widely used," says Charles Atkin, a researcher at Michigan State University in East Lansing. "Anything people see on network TV is legitimized, regarded as relatively innocuous."

It is illegal for students 18 to 20 years old to drink in any state. Yet underage college students are among the nation's heaviest drinkers. Studies show that underage students drink half the alcohol consumed on campus. "Television advertising, logos on campus, all this business sets the tone," Dr. Wechsler says. "The omnipresence of alcohol on campus, off campus, at frats ... is overwhelming - and it's all focusing on students."

Campus-based advertising by brewers - like the banners flying from arena rafters - is only a tiny part of a much larger, nearly $1 billion bucket of advertising money ladled out by the beer industry in 2001, according to Adams Business Media's Beer Handbook. …

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