Industry marketing codes in recent years have limited ads to media in which no more than 30% of the audience is under 21. But in a filing with the FTC, the attorneys general said current voluntary limits don't go far enough and that new ones should be mandatory.
"Right now it's just an industry standard," said Maine Attorney General G. Steven Rowe, who is co-chairman of the National Association of Attorney Generals Youth Access to Alcohol Committee, which is urging the FTC to mandate the new lower standard. "We believe the current standard overexposes youth to alcohol advertising."
He added, "Why do kids drink? Part of the reason is marketing practices of the alcohol industry. We know there is a causal connection between marketing and young people drinking."
Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff, co-chairman of the alcohol committee, in a statement said the current code is inadequate because it's difficult to factor out the under-12 audience from the alcohol industry's "under 21" standard. But media studies zeroing in on the 12-to-20 age group are easier to come by.
A 15% standard could have potentially far-reaching effects on alcohol advertising, sharply limiting its access to sports programming. It could also affect radio and Internet ads as well as some magazines.
A Nielsen Media Research spokeswoman said the change wouldn't push alcohol marketers off National Football League games; only 6.2% of NFL viewers were aged 12 to 20 during the regular season games last year. But a 2003 FTC report found that limiting alcohol advertising to media with only 15% of their audiences under age 21 would banish ads from some NBA and NHL telecasts and from magazines like GQ, Ebony, Men's Fitness and Shape.
In addition to its existing self-imposed 30% limit, the Distilled Spirits Council of the U.S. earlier this year said its members would pull ads from some top magazine covers because of concerns that school editions of the titles would be seen by underage youth.
Liquor and advertising associations have denied there is a causal relationship between advertising and underage drinking and questioned whether the government can legally impose any ad limits, and argue that their advertising is reaching mostly adults.
Dan Jaffe, exec VP of the Association of National Advertisers, said the industry has already imposed fairly dramatic self-limits and gave weak odds for the new proposal. "It's my strong guess that the FTC could not enforce this," he said. "It's highly unlikely to be constitutional."
Review of self regulation
The attorneys general also asked the FTC to review steps the industry has taken to self-regulate the appropriateness of their ads. "The states have undertaken review of [marketers'] advertisements and promotional practices that were either not subject to pre-publication review or, in our view, inappropriately passed pre-publication muster," the group said.
Besides Maine and Utah, the comments were signed or endorsed by attorney generals of Arizona, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Iowa, Maryland, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, Wyoming, California and Washington State.