Alcohol companies made an estimated $17.5 billion from underage drinkers in 2016, study says
FORT MYERS, Fla. / CNN — Alcohol companies made an estimated $17.5 billion in sales in the United States from underage drinkers in 2016, with the products of three companies — AB InBev, Molson Coors Beverage Co., and Diageo — accounting for nearly 45% of underage youth consumption, a new study found.
“A study of this kind hasn’t been done in some 20 years, and it shows that the alcohol industry is making billions of dollars from the sale of alcohol to minors,” the author of the study, Pamela Trangenstein, an assistant professor at the Gillings School of Global Public Health at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said.
The study, published Thursday in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, used national data on self-reported adult and underage drinking from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other sources. Researchers compared those numbers to alcohol sales in 2016, which they said was the latest data available, and adjusted for underreporting.
“It is not in the industry’s interest to moderate underage use in any way; that is where their future profits lay,” Paul Gruenewald, scientific director of the Prevention Research Center of the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation, who was not involved in the study, said.
“Demand is insured by getting youth to start drinking as early in their lives as possible, providing constant demand throughout the life course,” Gruenewald, who has researched the availability of alcohol since the late 1980s, said.
Underage access to alcohol still a problem
The study, which was sponsored by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, also looked at underage drinking in 2011. Researchers found a decline from 2011 to 2016 — minors consumed 11.7% of the standard alcoholic drinks sold in 2011 versus 8.6% in 2016. In the US, a standard drink is about 0.6 fluid ounces or 14 grams of pure alcohol, which differs depending on the type being consumed.
The study found sales revenue from alcoholic drinks consumed by minors also dropped, from $208 billion in total sales in 2011 to $237 billion in 2016 — or a drop from $20.9 billion to $17.5 billion.
Regardless of the decline, “underage drinking is still a significant public health issue,” said Mona Shah, senior program officer in the Research-Evaluation-Learning unit of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which has invested nearly $700 million over 20 years in alcohol and substance abuse prevention efforts in the US.
“Drinking and binge drinking remain common among high school students and underage college students,” Shah, who was not involved in the study, said
Trangenstein pointed to 2019 numbers from the NIAAA that show 7 million 12- to 20-year-olds said they drank alcohol in the past month, while 4.2 million reported binge drinking.
“Both of those numbers should be zero,” she said.
Despite decades of trying to combat teen access to alcohol, way too many young people slip through enforcement cracks, experts say.
“It is broadly known and acknowledged throughout the alcohol research community that underage youth can directly or indirectly, through others, purchase alcohol through retail outlets,” Gruenewald said.
“One usual quoted figure, for instance, is that underage youth can successfully purchase alcohol through off-premise outlets, such as grocery and convenience stores, about 30% of the time,” he added.
Each year, drinking is linked to more than 3,500 deaths and 210,000 years of potential life lost among people under age 21, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Alcohol poisoning, physical and sexual violence, and an increased risk of suicide and homicide among youth are also tied to alcohol abuse, and teens can suffer changes in brain development that may have life-long effects, the CDC says.
“Youth who began drinking before the age of 15 have four times higher risk of developing an alcohol use disorder, with all the health risks and impacts that entails,” Trangenstein said.
Majority of underage sales
AB InBev, or Anheuser-Busch InBev, is by far the largest in the industry, selling over 500 brands and “countless” beer varieties, according to its website. The study found over 21% of drinks consumed by underage youth in 2016 were made by AB InBev, for an estimated $2.2 billion in sales revenue.
Molson Coors – which was called MillerCoors until 2019 and is cited as MillerCoors in the study — makes 113 beers and hard ciders and gathered 12.3% of the 2016 underage market share. That’s roughly $1.1 billion in sales revenue, the study said.
Diageo sells over 200 brands of liquor and the Irish beer Guinness. The study found Diageo accounted for 11.1% of the alcohol market share for minors in 2016, taking in an estimated $2 billion in sales revenue.
Combined, products from these three companies accounted for about 45% of underage youth alcohol consumption in 2016, the study said.
CNN reached out to Molson Coors, AB InBev and Diageo for comment. Molson Coors and AB InBev directed the request for comment to the Beer Institute, a trade organization, which responded by pointing to the many preventiveefforts the industry sponsors.
“For example, since 1982, Anheuser-Busch and their wholesale partners have committed more than $1 billion in national advertising campaigns and community-based programs to encourage responsible drinking and prevent underage drinking and drunk driving,” a BeerInstitute spokesperson told CNN.
The spokesperson also pointed to actions by Molson Coors, which recently became “the first major beer company to support the TruAge age-verification system provided to all trade channels by the National Association of Convenience Stores.”
“We only want the business of consumers who are of legal drinking age. We abide by the drinking age laws in the USand the industry’s code of responsible practices,” the Diageo spokesperson said.
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