“Underage drinking is a problem in this country, and stopping it is critically important to all of us,” said Guy Smith, writing for alcohol giant Diageo in a recent issue of Capitol Weekly. At least he got this part right because nearly everything else he wrote stretched the bounds of reality.

Underage drinking overall may be declining slightly. But, what was conveniently omitted was that the only group of youth demonstrating an increase in drinking is underage girls. This includes binge drinking. The actual truth is our daughters, granddaughters and nieces are getting drunk at higher rates than their male counterparts. Moreover, their choices of alcohol are “alcopops,” the brightly colored, sweetly flavored, alcoholic beverages.

Every day, three teens die from drinking and driving. At least six more youths under 21 die each day from nondriving alcohol-related causes, such as homicide, suicide and drowning.

More than 70,000 college students are victims of alcohol-related sexual assault or date rape each year. Recent studies show heavy exposure of the adolescent brain to alcohol may interfere with brain development, causing loss of memory and other skills. Cases of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome have skyrocketed among teens.

In addition, recent research demonstrates that underage drinkers, especially girls, are the primary consumer of alcopops. An American Medical Association study found that alcopops are the beverage most frequently consumed by teenage girls and that adult women rated alcopops as their least-favored alcoholic beverage.

The Monitoring the Future Report, the definitive, federally funded report on youth drug use, reports that 13 percent of 8th-graders, 23 percent of 10th-graders and 30 percent of 12th-graders had consumed alcopops during the 30 days prior to being interviewed.

Alcopops are now more popular than beer among teenage girls, even though alcopops constitute less than 2 percent of the market.

Most disturbingly, the younger the drinker, the more likely he or she is consuming alcopops. These, and other research reports, were not available at the time that the 2003 Federal Trade Commission, report which Diageo relied upon, was released.

Numerous studies and surveys demonstrate that alcopop advertising targets young people. For example, the Center on Alcohol Marketing to Youth reports that in 2003, on a per capita basis, underage youths saw 92 percent more alcopop magazine advertisements than adults. Alcopop television ads were frequently broadcast during television shows especially popular with an underage audience, such as “That ’70s Show” and “Dark Angel.” The American Medical Association’s 2004 study found that more than 50 percent of the teen girls surveyed had learned of alcopops through television advertising alone, and that teen girls surveyed reported seeing more alcopop ads broadcast on television than did the adult women surveyed.

The earlier a young person begins drinking alcoholic beverages, the more likely it is that he or she will experience alcohol problems throughout his or her life. Research has shown that children who begin drinking before they are 15 are at far greater risk of alcohol-related problems later in life — including vehicle accidents and assaults — than those who do not begin drinking until they are 21 or older.

Mental illnesses often appear for the first time during the teenage years. Alcohol intensifies emotions such as anger, violent behavior or depression. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, the biggest risk factors contributing to attempted adolescent suicide include a history of depression and alcohol or other drug use. Alcohol and depression are a deadly combination.

To suggest that underage drinking is a shrinking problem and has nothing to do with the products’ marketing and labeling is a dangerous myth and does our children a huge disservice. The labeling of these products is a significant concern to parents, teachers, law enforcement, and teens themselves. The labeling of these alcoholic products makes them indistinguishable from nonalcoholic beverages. Simple common sense labeling legislation, like my AB346, has been met with hostility by the alcohol industry.

Alcopops make up a small percentage of the alcohol industry’s profits. I invite alcohol distributors and the distilleries to join me and all other Californians who want to resolve this terrible problem of underage and binge drinking that destroys people’s lives.

Alcopops are a black eye on the alcohol industry. This industry has a chance to act responsibly when it comes to alcopops.

Spending millions of dollars to protect a fraction of their market that does nothing but make them look bad in the eyes of the public is a bad business decision, irrespective of the fact that it is morally reprehensible.

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