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Brewing interest in teens?

A new study shows that minors spend a significant amount of time on alcohol company websites.

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Their websites feature water-balloon tossing, alien shootouts, and pinball games in the shape of beer bottles. They quiz viewers on punk- pop bands such as Blink 182. They offer downloadable screensavers with logos, customized music, and e-mails "spoken" by hamsters, donkeys, and frogs.

But there's a catch: If you're under age 21, you aren't supposed to enter, because the sites are maintained by alcohol companies.

Last week, the Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth (CAMY) at Georgetown University in Washington released a study of 74 such sites. It found that minors comprise up to 60 percent of visitors to these sites, and that there were nearly 700,000 visits by minors in the last half of 2003. [Editor's note: The original version misstated the numbers of minors visiting the sites.]

The report says that these sites not only provide games and interactive features such as custom music videos, but are easily accessible by minors. "Barriers really are a false hope when it comes to restricting underage youth access," says Jim O'Hara of CAMY. "Anyone can type in a birth date of 21 or more, and they'll be on these sites."

Mr. O'Hara adds that the study is the first of its kind to inspect closely the online advertising practices of alcohol companies. "In many instances, these features have a clear appeal to underage youth," he says. "Many parents and adults don't really appreciate the magnitude and severity of underage drinking."

The study comes on the heels of two lawsuits seeking class-action status filed against alcohol companies, including Anheuser-Busch and Miller Brewing Co., the industry's largest domestic brewers. Both suits claim the companies target youths with flavored malt beverages (aka "alcopops") that resemble sodas, as well as with advertisements in markets where minors comprise a significant percentage of the audience.

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