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Many people who end their Friday or Saturday nights in a hospital emergency room have been drinking alcohol. In fact, public health experts estimate that about one-third of all injury-related ER visits involved alcohol consumption.
But what, exactly, are people drinking? What types of alcohol and even what brands? Is there a direct link between advertising and marketing and later injury?
Until now, those questions have been unanswerable, frustrating alcohol epidemiology researchers. But if results of a pilot study conducted by researchers from Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health hold up, there may soon be a way to connect the dots.
When the Hopkins researchers surveyed ER patients who’d been drinking, they found that Budweiser was the number one brand consumed, followed Steel Reserve Malt Liquor, Colt 45 malt liquor, Bud Ice (another malt liquor), Bud Light, and a discount-priced vodka called Barton’s.
Though Budweiser has 9.1 percent of the national beer market, it represented 15 percent of the of the E.R. “market.” The disparity was even more pronounced for Steel Reserve. It has only .8 percent of the market nationally, but accounted for 14.7 percent of the E.R. market. In all, Steel Reserve, Colt 45, Bud Ice, and another malt liquor, King Cobra, account for only 2.4 percent of the U.S. beer market, but accounted for 46 percent of the beer consumed by E.R. patients.
“Some products are marketed to certain groups of people in our society,” explained Traci Toomey, the director of the University of Minnesota’s alcohol epidemiology program, who was not involved in the study. Higher-alcohol malt liquor, for example, is heavily advertised in African-American neighborhoods. “So we might want to put some controls on certain products if we find they are tied to greater risk. But how they are marketed and priced is critical information and that has been very hard to study.”
“The Federal Trade Commission, in reports, and in personal communication with me, said this kind of research cannot be done,” David Jernigan, a professor of public health at Johns Hopkins and the director of the study told NBC News. “The National Institute on Drug Abuse gave me similar pushback.”
Though Jernigan was quick to point out that no conclusions could be made about beer or malt liquor advertising, pricing, or even consumption based on the study since it was too small – 105 patient interviews -- and took place in only one hospital in Baltimore in mostly black neighborhood, he proved such research was possible.
By using a drop down menu on a small notebook computer, the survey takers managed to obtain information from patients, and to include about 400 brands, in less than five minutes. At first, Jernigan, said, many patients refused to talk. But then the survey takers, with the permission of the emergency room staff, donned white coats. After that, patients talked freely.
Overall, malt liquor and lower alcohol beer dominated consumption but vodka, gin, brandy and cognac were overrepresented, too.
Brian Alexander is a frequent contributor to NBC News and a co-author of “The Chemistry Between Us: Love, Sex, and the Science of Attraction.”