By Steven Reinberg
MONDAY, March 2 (HealthDay News) -- All those T-shirts, hats and other items promoting alcoholic beverages that young people wear may be more than just a fashion statement.
Teens who own such merchandise are more likely to start drinking and become binge drinkers, a new study contends.
The Dartmouth scientists who did the research said this is the first study directly linking alcohol-branded merchandise to adolescent drinking and outcomes such as binge drinking that can result in illness and death. In addition, the data provide evidence that this merchandise promotes teen drinking and could be a basis for enacting policies to restrict this alcohol-marketing practice, the researchers said.
"About 3 million adolescents in the United States own alcohol-branded merchandise," said lead researcher Dr. Auden C. McClure, a pediatrician at Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center in Hanover, N.H. "Ownership of these items is associated with susceptibility to alcohol use and binge drinking," she added.
These items serve as a marker for adolescents who drink, McClure said. "But it is also a direct link with susceptibility and initiation to drinking," she said. "You can't say any longer that these items are just a marker of kids who drink."
The report is published in the March issue of the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine.
For the study, McClure's team surveyed 6,522 adolescents aged 10 to 14 about their drinking behaviors and drinking susceptibility, including peer pressure, intentions to drink and positive expectations about drinking. In three follow-up surveys, the researchers had the adolescents answer questions about changes in drinking habits and ownership of alcohol-branded merchandise.
The number of adolescents who owned alcohol-branded merchandise ranged from 11 percent at the eight-month survey to 20 percent at the 24-month survey.
The most common products were clothing (64 percent), hats (24 percent) and other items such as jewelry, key chains, shot glasses, posters and pens. Seventy-five percent of the brands were beer -- 45 percent had the Budweiser label, the researchers said.
Most of the merchandise was purchased by friends or family members (71 percent), but adolescents themselves also bought items (24 percent), the researchers found.
Significantly, McClure's group found that having these items predicted the susceptibility to start drinking and becoming a binge drinker.
This study adds to the evidence linking alcohol-branded merchandise and teen drinking, McClure said. "It really underscores the importance for policies that restrict the scope of this marketing, so that these products aren't reaching teens and influencing drinking behaviors," she said.
David H. Jernigan, an associate professor at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore and author of an accompanying journal editorial, agreed that there needs to be restrictions on putting these products in the hands of children.
"Preventing the early initiation of alcohol use is critical for our kids," Jernigan said. "We have a situation where we have about 5,000 kids a day under 16 who start drinking."
Children who start drinking before 15 are four times more likely to become alcohol-dependent, seven times more likely to be in a car accident, and 11 times more likely to be involved in alcohol-related violence later in life than people who wait until 21 to start drinking, Jernigan said.
"This study presents some of the strongest evidence to date that ownership of alcohol-branded merchandise is a powerful predictor of kids initiating drinking," Jernigan said. "Self-regulation doesn't work."
Jernigan thinks there needs to be constitutionally feasible restrictions that will be effective in keeping this merchandise out of the hands of children. The most effective method is to get the companies to stop making this merchandise, he said.
"There should be pressure put on these companies," Jernigan said. "If you are producing stuff, so much of which ends up in the bodies of an audience that's not the target of your marketing, I hope you would think twice."