Alcohol industry fights Walsh bill on ad placements

Alcohol industry officials are seeking to scuttle a bill that would prohibit them from advertising on state-owned property, calling it an unconstitutional infringement on speech and ineffective at combating underage drinking.

“Advertising restrictions divert attention from solutions that work to combat alcohol abuse,” said Jay Hibbard, vice president of the Distilled Spirits Council, which represents about 70 percent of distilled alcohol companies in the United States, including Bacardi, Patron Spirits Company, Remy Cointreau, and Pernod Ricard. “This proposal would restrict truthful and non-misleading advertising of distilled spirits, beer and wine, while failing to advance the objective of reducing abuse, including underage drinking.”

Hibbard was objecting to a proposal (H 1113) by state Rep. Martin Walsh (D-Dorchester) that would forbid alcohol advertisements on public property. The 24-word proposal prohibits “alcohol advertising on any property owned or operated by the commonwealth.”

Supporters of the proposal, including experts on the effects of advertising on youth, argued that kids are “pervasively overexposed” to alcohol advertising and are more likely to drink earlier and more frequently as a result.

“Because of the messages that the commonwealth is sending to these kids through our property, the clear message being sent [is that] there are two key components” of what should be in a college dorm room, said Michael Siegel, associate chairman Boston University’s community health sciences department, holding up pictures of alcohol ads for committee members. “The first is a minimal amount of furniture. But clearly the most important thing that you need is this huge bottle of Absolut Vodka. I’m here today because state property is being used to send these messages to kids.”

Hibbard, in his testimony, cited the alcohol industry’s own “successful self-regulation through our industry’s 74-year-old Code of Responsible conduct.”

“The [Federal Trade Commission] has concluded that spirits advertisements are directed to adults; and that industry self-regulation is effective and addresses advertising issues that otherwise could not be reached by government regulation due to the First Amendment,” Hibbard said. He added that underage drinking has declined in recent years, in part because of industry-funded programs. Parental involvement, education, and enforcement of existing laws have a more significant effect on underage drinking than restrictions on advertising, he said.

Proponents of the legislation say numerous studies show advertising is a driver of underage drinking.

“While many factors can influence an underage person’s drinking decisions, since 1999 the evidence that advertising plays a role has gotten stronger,” said David Jernigan, a professor at Johns Hopkins University’s Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth.

Siegel said a study he led that will be published in November found an average of two alcohol ads per MBTA car and that those ads provide more exposure for alcohol companies than “a single Super Bowl commercial” In addition, 18,000 Boston Public School students see alcohol ads every day on the T, he said.

Lawmakers on the committee wondered whether prohibiting alcohol ads on state property would simply redirect advertisers to other venues, depriving the state of revenue but doing little to reduce underage drinking.

Noting that the MBTA derives 8 percent of its $14 million annual advertising revenue from alcohol ads, Siegel argued that valuable subway advertising space would be quickly bought out by other advertisers.

“There are plenty of other advertisers that are waiting to advertise,” he said. “It would be very easy for the MBTA to simply market these spaces to other companies.”

Rep. Steven Walsh (D-Lynn) suggested that distillers submit written suggestions as to what lawmakers should do to prevent underage drinking, if they believe advertising restrictions are not the answer.