American kids as young as 11 are seeing a few ads for alcohol every day, concerning researchers who say advertising places young people at greater risk of using or abusing alcohol.
Researchers at Rand Corp., the non-partisan research firm, designed a study where 589 kids aged 11-14 used handheld computers to log the number of times a day they saw an ad for alcohol. The team determined the kids in the study were exposed to an average of about three alcohol-related advertisements a day.
"It might not sound like a lot if you think of it day-by-day," study co-author Rebecca Collins told CNBC. "But over the long term, that is about 1,000 ads a year. The fact is, alcohol advertising is a part of kids' everyday life."
Breaking down the statistics revealed some interesting patterns, as well as surprises for the researchers. For example, the largest percentage of alcohol ads the kids reported seeing came not from TV or the Internet, but outdoor billboards.
Beer made up the largest share of the ads children saw, which Collins noted seems to track the advertising budgets for beer relative to other beverages. However, wine ads were more visible in print publications, such as magazines.
In the study, African-American and Hispanic kids reported seeing twice as many ads as their white counterparts. Collins said this could be a coincidence, or could be due to marketing efforts targeting those demographics.
However, Collins and her colleagues found in other research that white children were more likely to respond positively to alcohol ads than black or Hispanic kids, for reasons researchers do not yet understand. And for reasons also unclear, girls reported seeing about 30 percent more ads than boys.
Recent government statistics have indicated underage drinking in the U.S. is at an all-time historical low, but health care professional still say it's too high.
"We are very encouraged by the continued decline in underage drinking illustrated in these data," said George F. Koob, Ph.D., director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, in a press release last December.
"However," he added, "the percent of underage individuals drinking still remains unacceptably high. For example, approximately 40 percent of 12th graders have reported being drunk in the past year and binge drinking remains a significant problem."
The researchers cite other research noting that 70-80 percent of American adolescents have consumed alcohol, and about 50 percent have been drunk by the end of high school.
They also note other research suggesting exposure to advertisements may "hasten initiation of drinking and increase consumption."
In the study, the kids were given surveys every eight months with questions about their social situation (such as family and friends) and drinking behavior.
They were also given small handheld devices to use to record every sighting of an ad for alcohol. They were told to go about their normal lives, and not seek out advertisements or do anything different from what they would normally do. Each child tracked ads for about two weeks.
The range of ads they were told to report was quite wide: It ranged from television and magazine ads, product placement in entertainment, signs outside bars or restaurants, event sponsors, branded promotional products, such as hats and T-shirts, or posts on social media, among others.
Collins said the children were already familiar with many of the forms of advertising, with a few notable exceptions. "The one they had not seemed to think of as much was product placement in movies or TV shows," she said. The students reported low levels of exposure to product placement in entertainment.
The study did acknowledge some limitations. The study was limited geographically to Southern California, where kids "typically commute to school through areas populated with gas stations, mini-malls, and billboards where there are ample opportunities for advertising exposure. Results may not describe youth in settings without these characteristics."
Also, some of the youth may have misreported or under-reported the number of advertisements they saw.
Still, the researchers said those advertising exposure "levels warrant intervention by policy makers, practitioners, and parents."