updated 3/9/2004 3:05:33 PM ET 2004-03-09T20:05:33

Alcohol company Web sites are offering a “cyber playground” for underage youths despite promises from the companies to limit their access, according to a study released Tuesday.

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The study by the Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth at Georgetown University estimated that nearly 700,000 visits by underage people were made to alcohol company Web sites from July through December. Many played video games and downloaded music, e-mail gadgets and icons — all the while immersed in the marketing of beer and alcohol, center director Jim O’Hara said.

“These alcohol Web sites are a virtual cyber playground with no adult supervision,” O’Hara said. “If a liquor store were this ineffective in policing underage visits, the community would be up in arms.”

Frank Coleman of the Distilled Spirits Council in Washington called the study a publicity stunt aimed at generating fund raising. He said the Federal Trade Commission has “reviewed our ads and said they were directed to adults, that our Web content is directed to adults and that 99.9 percent of them had age verification in place, in addition to having responsible drinking messages throughout.”

For the study, the Internet audience-measuring service comScore Media Metrix used its panel of U.S. residents as a statistical sampling of Internet users. The study was not a survey but instead monitored actual Internet usage, O’Hara said.

Controls don't block all sites
The study showed that about 13 percent of all visitors to 55 alcohol company Web sites were under the legal drinking age of 21. The most popular sites among young people involving distilled spirits, beer and so-called “malternatives,” generally sweet-tasting alcohol products.

Bacardi’s site — www.bacardi.com — received about 59 percent of its visits from underage persons, according to the study. The two sites receiving the most total hits from underage users were both affiliated with St. Louis-based beer giant Anheuser-Busch Cos. Inc. — www.budlight.com and www.budweiser.com. Both received more than 90,000 estimated visits during the six-month study period.

Parental controls on computers block some, but not all sites, O’Hara said. The study found that while six of eight parental-control programs studied blocked access to the Bud Light site, only one kept underage users away from Bacardi’s.

The sites themselves generally require age verification, though there is no way to verify the truthfulness of the user.

The study found that games were featured on 10 of 15 beer Web sites, seven of 19 sites for distilled spirits and four of 12 for malternatives.

“There are a lot of features that appear to be in conflict with the industry’s own marketing and advertising codes, where they shouldn’t be using toys and games,” O’Hara said.

Eric Shepard, executive editor of Beer Marketer’s Insight magazine, said many 20-somethings play video games, too.

“I don’t know how you keep people off a Web site,” Shepard said. “What do you do? Take a credit card?”

Anheuser-Busch did not return telephone calls Monday seeking comment.

Bacardi USA spokeswoman Pat Neal had not seen the report but said the company was “highly suspect of the science behind it.”

“We are responsible marketers and we do not target underage consumers,” Neal said.

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