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Lawsuits, Alcohol Advertising and Money

Is alcohol advertising targeted at underage drinkers? Does advertising cause alcohol abuse? Should alcohol companies be liable for underage drinkers who harm themselves or others while under the influence? 

Since research answers the first two questions in the negative, it would seem to follow that the answer to the third question should also be "no" — especially since the legal cause of alcohol-related injuries, generally speaking, is the drinker's decision to drink. 

Nevertheless, personal injury lawyers around the country are trying to connect alcohol advertising (search) with underage drinking (search) mishaps. They've already filed lawsuits in Nevada, Ohio, California, North Carolina, Colorado, and Washington, D.C. 

"This is extremely sophisticated marketing that's making an awful lot of money," said lawyer David Boies III to USA Today.

Boies, son of Al Gore's lawyer in the litigation over the 2000 presidential election, filed suit in Virginia, Ohio and Colorado against Coors, Heineken, Diageo, and Bacardi alleging the companies' magazine advertisements appealed to underage drinkers. Fortunately for Coors, Heineken and the other defendants, they have some pretty good facts and common sense on their side. 

According to longtime alcohol researcher Dr. David J. Hanson (search) of the State University of New York (Potsdam), there is no solid evidence from either scientific research or practical experience of any link between alcohol advertising and alcohol abuse. Dr. Hanson points out that: 

— A Federal Trade Commission study reported that there is "no reliable basis to conclude that alcohol advertising significantly affects consumption, let alone abuse."

— The Department of Health and Human Services reported to Congress that there is no significant relationship between alcohol advertising and alcohol consumption and did not recommend banning or imposing additional restrictions on advertising.

— A University of Texas study of alcohol advertising over a 21-year period found that the amount of money spent on alcohol ads had little relationship with total consumption in the population.

— U.S. and Canadian studies have reported no significant link between restrictions on advertising and alcohol consumption.

— Alcohol advertising expenditures have increased while alcohol-related traffic fatalities have declined.

— The founding director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (search) recently pointed out that not a single study credibly connects advertising with an increase in alcohol use or abuse.

Alcohol advertising, like other advertising for familiar consumer products, is about market share, not increasing consumption, according to Dr. Hanson. Effective advertisers get consumers to switch brands, not to consume more alcohol.

Boies, like many other personal injury lawyers, may not be daunted by the lack of facts in his favor and may try to simply scare alcohol companies into making lucrative settlements rather than taking their chances with juries who may be sympathetic to the victims of underage drinkers.

This strategy probably won't work with at least one of the defendants.

Earlier this month Coors responded to one of these lawsuits with a letter to the plaintiffs' lawyer putting him on notice to either withdraw the lawsuit or face a motion for sanctions — fines judges can impose for bringing frivolous litigation. Sympathizing with the family of the underage drinker, Coors pointed out that their 19-year-old son lost his life because of his own series of bad decisions: to break the law against underage drinking; to drink to excess; to drive without a valid permit; and, reportedly, to "shatter the speed limit" before losing control and striking a light pole.

"His personal responsibility for his own choices does not evaporate because Coors sponsored sporting events that [the underage drinker] attended years earlier," Coors letter said.

Faced with this determined defense — and unassailable logic — the plaintiffs' lawyer immediately dismissed his lawsuit against Coors "with prejudice," meaning it can't be re-filed. 

It may take longer to penetrate the class-action allegations in some similar lawsuits, but eventually they all will boil down to teenagers who know perfectly well they are breaking the law and lawyers who are looking for someone else to blame ... and to pay.

Steven Milloy is the publisher of JunkScience.com, an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute and the author of Junk Science Judo: Self-Defense Against Health Scares and Scams (Cato Institute, 2001).

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