NASCAR and alcohol promotion: Gentlemen, stop your engines

The auto racing circuit and others participating in the aggressive marketing of liquor toward youths must reverse course.

Posted Feb. 7, 2005.

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Three years ago, NBC wisely dropped what the AMA called its "shockingly irresponsible" plan to air advertising for hard liquor. But on Feb. 20, when the green flag drops on the Daytona 500, hard-liquor advertising will race its way onto network television.

That's because NASCAR -- the most popular auto racing circuit in the United States, with attendance and TV ratings second only to pro football -- has allowed hard-liquor companies to sponsor cars for its 2005 season.

That means some race cars will be rolling advertisements for hard liquor as they circle past NASCAR's estimated 75 million fans. The season starts with its premier race, the Daytona 500, televised by Fox. To cement the idea that buying an auto-racing sponsorship can be a backdoor to breaking a self-imposed ban on certain advertising, later NASCAR races will be televised by, of all networks, NBC.

NASCAR says it is waving a yellow flag to hard-liquor companies, emphasizing that they should tout responsible drinking and make sure not to gear its advertising to those younger than the legal age of 21.

That sounds like a good idea. But the reality is that millions of NASCAR fans are younger than 21, and 10 million underage youth are already alcohol drinkers. Also, NASCAR fans are intensely loyal to the sponsors of the sport, and of their favorite drivers. For example, many media accounts chronicled how cell phone company Nextel got a growth spurt from NASCAR fans after it paid to sponsor the series' championship trophy. It's hard to imagine that hard-liquor sponsors would not see a similar boost.

The hard-liquor-ad-festooned autos sends younger viewers a mixed message of fast cars, famous racers and drinking, at a time when alcohol already plays a role in one-third of car crashes involving teenagers. It's also at a time when alcohol is a key factor of all leading causes of death for teenagers.

The thing is, NASCAR is persisting with this plan even though most Americans think it's racing the wrong way around the track on the hard-liquor issue. A survey by the AMA's Reducing Underage Drinking Through Coalitions initiative found that 63% of Americans believe that marketing hard liquor on race cars sends the wrong message to children and teens about drinking and driving. Meanwhile, almost 70% said all sports should reduce their dependence on alcohol advertising, while an even greater number said NASCAR should reverse its hard-liquor policy.

Sadly, NASCAR is not the only entity exposing alcohol advertising toward youths.

On Dec. 16, 2004, the AMA released a poll, taken in conjunction with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The poll found that extensive marketing of so-called "alcopops" -- sweet-tasting drinks containing alcohol -- is being received by girls younger than 21. For example, nearly half of all girls 16 to 18 have seen alcopop ads on TV, compared with only 34% for women 21 and older. No surprise then, that teen girls report drinking alcopops more than any other kind of alcoholic beverages, with one in three reporting having tried one, one out of six of those in the last six months. Meanwhile, women older than 21 -- the stated target for those alcopop ads -- rank alcopops as their least-consumed alcoholic beverage.

Those girls who had reported drinking alcopops were more likely to engage in high-risk behavior. For example, one out of four girls who had tried alcopops had driven drunk or ridden in a car with a drunk driver.

It's clear that the marketing tactics of alcohol marketers are snagging a too-young generation of drinkers. That sort of aggressive promotion, whether by alcopop makers or aided by NASCAR, must be given the red flag.

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