Bacardi and Smirnoff advertisements may be coming soon to a T stop near you. After three years, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority is reversing its policy that currently bans alcohol ads in its trains and stations.
While advocates argue that alcohol advertisements represent a possible source of untapped revenue for the deficit-ridden MBTA, however, the economic gains are not worth the public health consequences of the advertisements. The MBTA system is regularly used by college students and high school students. Given the public health risks posed by underage drinking and the very real effect that alcohol advertisements have on young people’s alcohol consumption, this change would be a move in the wrong direction.
Of course, the MBTA’s budget of $242 million is a sign that it should be considering all possible sources of revenue to ensure that it can improve its operations. However, the reversal of the alcohol ban is expected to add only $1.3 million to existing revenue—a number too insignificant to compensate for the social effects of the ads.
Allowing alcohol advertisements on a public transportation system so often used by students of all ages will only serve to encourage underage drinking. Alcohol abuse is already a serious at colleges, where unhealthy drinking behavior is prevalent. Alcohol advertisements on the T, to which Boston-area students are regularly exposed, will further exacerbate these problems. Moreover, studies have shown that high school students are more likely to drink when exposed to advertising, and that youth of color are often more likely to be exposed to alcohol advertisements in public locations.
Concerns about the influence of alcohol ads on young people are the very ones that prompted the MBTA to ban alcohol advertisements in 2012, following pressure from the Allston-Brighton Substance Abuse Task Force and young people themselves. Following the 2012 , the MBTA’s ad revenue dropped by $1 million, but has since rebounded robustly, increasing from $11 million in 2012 to $16 million in 2014. This upward trend shows that a solution to the MBTA’s financial problems does not necessarily include permitting alcohol advertisements.
With its potential to exacerbate serious public health issues and its limited financial benefits, the plan to lift the alcohol ban is ill conceived. We urge the MBTA instead to explore other the many other sources of revenue proposed by its advertising contractor. Every resident of the Greater Boston area—especially high school and college students—has a vested interest in ensuring that the T remains well maintained and operational all year round. But the public health consequences of represent an equally grave concern. In this case, the T should realize that alcohol advertising is not the appropriate solution to its fiscal constraints.