Even a little progress is progress. So it was good to hear the nation's alcoholic- beverage industry promise the Federal Trade Commission on Tuesday it would advertise only in media for which less than 30 percent of the audience is below the legal drinking age of 21. The current level is 50 percent.
The agreement was - well, timely. It came as the FTC sent Congress the results of an investigation this week into alcohol- industry advertising practices. The agency found no effort to target youths, but said the 50 percent standard permitted a significant amount of advertising to reach underage people. Recent studies by Georgetown University's Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth, however, found the industry placing large amounts of advertising on TV programs, on radio formats, and in magazines popular with teens.
The next day, the Institute of Medicine at the National Academy of Science (NAS) released a report that pegs the cost of teenage drinking at $53 billion a year - including $19 billion for traffic accidents alone.
The NAS study says that nearly half of all 12th-graders reported taking a drink in the past month, with more than one-quarter reporting having five or more drinks in the past two weeks. Yet parents are often clueless about their children's drinking habits.
The findings recall research by the National Institutes of Health, reported last year, that found drinking on college campuses was linked to 1,400 deaths, 500,000 injuries, and 70,000 sexual assaults annually.
The new NAS study proposes tough steps to combat underage drinking: steep increases on state beer taxes to help reduce teen purchases; tough state penalties on stores that sell alcohol to teens; a broad public- service campaign targeting parents; and deglamorizing alcohol use in music and movies, especially hip-hop music and videos.
Experts disagree on how best to reduce teen drinking. Clearly, however, parents' example can influence how children view alcohol.
Still, the less booze advertised on the airwaves, the better. Happily, the decades-old voluntary agreement to keep ads for hard liquor off the air is back in effect - despite NBC's ill- advised attempt to breach it in 2001. But given the terrible social costs of alcohol abuse and teen drinking, the federal government must begin to attack them as seriously as it has gone after smoking.
Congress banned cigarette advertising from television and radio altogether, beginning in 1971. Doing the same with alcohol would be a good start.