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 March 9.

The study by the Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth at Georgetown University estimated that nearly 700,000 underage people visited alcohol company web sites from July through December. Many played video games and downloaded music, eMail 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.

The study showed that about 13 percent of all visitors to 55 alcohol company web sites were under the legal drinking age of 21.

Filtering software blocked 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 study also found that games were featured on 10 of 15 beer web sites and seven of 19 sites for distilled spirits. The sites themselves generally require age verification, though there is no way to verify the truthfulness of the user, the study said.

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Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth