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Sites skirt age limits, study says

Tobacco and alcohol companies are enticing underage buyers on the Net, a children's advocacy group charges.

Tobacco and alcohol companies are enticing underage buyers by pushing their products on the Net, a national children's advocacy group charged in a study released today.

The Center for Media Education is calling for congressional hearings on the issue and will present its findings to the Federal Trade Commission, as reported by CNET. The center surfed more than 300 sites, a large portion were "indiscriminately promoting the use of alcohol and tobacco," the study states.

Under the guise of interactive games, T-shirt giveaways, and chats, the study says many companies are really trying to sell the appeal of smoking and boozing to young people. The practice is being closely watched by not only the center, but also by industry groups that say their members must apply the same ethical advertising standards to the Net as they do on any every other medium.

Still, the center sites numerous examples of promotions it says are dangerous toward youth.

"The Budweiser online radio network, 'KBUD,' hosted by DJ Buddy L, intersperses music, interviews with rock stars, and reviews of albums with a steady stream of promotions of beer."

Although the Budweiser site mentioned doesn't ask for the age of visitors, other interactive parts of the site ask for ages and say people must be 21 to participate. But Budweiser doesn't actually verify users' ages.

Other beer sites like Zima have age warnings on their home page, such as: "If you are not 21, we'll wait for your business."

The center wants the government to take action because it says alcohol and tobacco sites are more deceiving and alluring than print ads. Companies' Net presence are often enhanced with music, articles, cocktail recipes, and even interviews with celebrities. These factors may confuse underage buyers and reinforce the image that those products are "cool" at a time when smoking is on the rise and alcohol is a factor in all leading cases of death among youth ages 15 to 24, the report states.

"We need to prohibit all online advertising of tobacco and alcohol products. There are limits to what blocking software can do," said Jeff Chester, Center for Media Education executive director, before the release of the study. "Why would a company want to set up an interactive environment to make kids think smoking was cool? In the rush to generate profits, marketers are acting unconsciously."

Chester said today that tobacco companies in particular may be violating the Cigarette Act, which has kept advertising of cigarettes off radio and television since 1971. The act applies to "any medium of electronic communication subject to jurisdiction of the Federal Communication Commission." But an FCC spokesman said the federal agency had no jurisdiction over the Net at this time.

Another concern is the practice of actually selling alcohol online to those under age 21. With a quick search, CNET found sites selling beer, wine, and liquor without age verification systems in place. The study also found such sites.

The American Association of Advertising Agencies said it did not know of any sites that were selling alcohol online without checking identification or violating the organization's code of ethics. The association represents 80 percent of national advertisers, many of which are alcohol and tobacco companies.

"We consider the Internet to be just another medium that should comply with the standards of practice we have in place. We do not condone the targeting of youth for products that can only be purchased by adults," said Hal Shoup, executive vice president of the association. "When you advertise in any medium, it is impossible to eliminate any [underagers] from seeing your advertising, but the marketer should determine that the potential consumer is of a legal age."