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The companies, not surprisingly, dispute that there is a link between ads and underage drinking. They add that they shouldn't be held responsible even if they indirectly target minors. Companies rely on advertising, they say, and it probably isn't possible to avoid having their ads seen by kids who watch TV, read magazines, and surf online.

What makes the question so tricky is that defining "direct" and "indirect" marketing is entirely subjective, says Janet Evans, director of the Federal Trade Commission's alcohol advertising program. "More than 99 percent of the dollars for advertising flavored malt beverages was expended in compliance with the industry standard," she points out, "but we didn't say the standard was fabulous."

When the FTC studied the effects of advertising on minors in 2003, it found no evidence that companies intentionally target underage drinkers. Nevertheless, it changed some regulations. Now, for example, alcohol companies may not advertise to an audience where minors comprise more than 30 percent; the cap used to be 50 percent.

After hearings on underage drinking last fall, legislation is being crafted on Capitol Hill to combat underage drinking and examine what, where, and how companies advertise, says Ryan McGinn, spokeswoman for Sen. Chris Dodd (D) of Connecticut. "We're hoping to roll out those recommendations next month, which is Alcohol Awareness Month." She adds that any recommendations the legislation makes will be based on a report released last fall by the Institute of Medicine in Washington.

"The industry actually invests a significant amount of research into programs that educate retailers, parents, etc.," says Mary Ellen O'Connell, who directed the Institute of Medicine report. "But a majority of those programs haven't been evaluated, and there's a fair amount of skepticism that we all would be better served if we redirect those resources to a nonprofit charged with reducing underage drinking."

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