Newswise — Owning a piece of clothing or other merchandise with an alcohol brand name on it may be associated with an earlier start to drinking, according to a new study. But a beer-industry representative says that the study doesn't show which comes first: teens getting branded merchandise or starting to drink.

The survey of middle-school students in northern New England found that those who owned a piece of merchandise featuring an alcohol name or logo were twice as likely to have started drinking as those who did not.

"This is one of the first looks at alcohol-branded merchandise and teen drinking," said Auden C. McClure, M.D., a clinical instructor at Dartmouth Medical School and lead author of the study in the April issue of American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

The study participants were enrolled in a 1999 survey aimed primarily at looking at factors affecting teen smoking. Students who said they had not used alcohol were followed up one year to two years later by telephone and asked about their drinking, that of their peers and whether they owned anything with an alcohol name on it.

The students were not asked about drinking habits in their family, which could affect the study results, the authors wrote.

Of the 2,406 students who had not started drinking in 1999, 15 percent had started using alcohol and 14 percent owned an item — such as a T-shirt or hat — with an alcohol brand or logo on it. Of those who owned a branded item, 25.5 percent had started drinking, compared with 13.1 percent of those who did not own an item with a brand.

Students were not asked what brands were on the items then owned, McClure said. However, some students mentioned the brand name during the interviews, most of which were beer brands, she said.

In a written response to the study, John Kaestner, vice president for consumer affairs of Anheuser-Busch, said, "We direct our marketing to our customers, adults 21 and older. Our promotional clothing and merchandise are intended for adults, come in adult sizes and are placed in adult sections of stores. The agreements we have with our licensees only permit their retailers to market, sell and distribute our beer-branded merchandise to adults of legal drinking age."

Coors Brewing Company, in a later statement, described a similar policy: "As part of our marketing promotions, [the company] gives Coors-branded apparel only to people 21 and older. In fact, we train our promotional teams to ensure that they are not giving merchandise to anybody under 21." The statement added, "We also license our Coors trademarks to apparel and merchandise manufacturers. Our license agreement states that any apparel must be manufactured in adult sizes and only marketed to adults."

The Coors statement acknowledged that the company "does not have control over where retailers display the licensed goods for sale to consumers." However, "[Coors] believes retailers display merchandise appropriately and are sensitive to the issue."

Reacting to the new findings, Anheuser-Busch's Kaestner said, "Several shortcomings of this study, also cited by the authors, are worth noting. The most influential factor in teens' drinking decisions — parents — was not fully examined in the study, with parent alcohol use and the way in which the student acquired the alcohol-branded merchandise being unmeasured."

Kaestner said that in the study, "It is unclear whether teen drinking started before or after owning alcohol-branded merchandise," and that the study population was not nationally representative, "using youth in just two states."

McClure and her colleagues have started a similar study on a national level.

Similar studies have shown that young people who owned merchandise bearing cigarette logos were more likely to smoke, McClure said. "There are many parallels with the initiation of smoking and ownership of branded items." Tobacco companies voluntarily stopped distributing promotional items as part of the 1999 agreement with state attorneys general, she said.

McClure AC, et al. Ownership of alcohol-branded merchandise and initiation of teen drinking.. Am J Prev Med 30(4), 2006.

Register for reporter access to contact details

American Journal of Preventive Medicine (30(4), Apr-2006)