Class action lawsuit claims beer and wine firms aim ads at underage drinkers

Diageo and other leading beer, wines and spirits companies could face a massive class action lawsuit, claiming they deliberately used advertising aimed at drinkers under the legal age of 21 in the US.

The suit, brought through the Strauss and Boies law firm, has been filed in the civil division of the Washington DC Superior Court. It was not immediately clear whether temperance groups or other organisations were involved.

Diageo is one of the world's largest manufacturers of alcoholic drinks. Its brands include Johnnie Walker, Tanqueray gin, Smirnoff vodka and Guinness. The other companies cited are some of the biggest names in the industry: the American brewing firm Coors, Heineken, Bacardi, and the Brown-Forman corporation whose brands include Jack Daniel's bourbon whiskey.

The Beer Institute (the US trade association) and two leading wines and spirits distributors, Kobrand and the Mark Anthony Group, were also named. The suit claims that the defendants "actively marketed certain of their products directly to under-age individuals". The punishment sought includes the return of profits accruing from such sales, and punitive and treble damages. In a statement, the company said it would "vigorously defend" the case, insisting its advertising and marketing was directed at adults of legal drinking age. Diageo said it was "proud of its marketing code and its efforts towards discouraging under-age drinking and alcohol misuse". The precise status of the suit is unclear. To proceed, a class-action suit must be first be accepted by a judge.

"It looks as if they're saying that some of our advertising appeals to kids, and now they're looking for parents whose kids have suffered from under-age drinking to sign up," an industry source said.

Class-action suits are notoriously unpredictable. Billions of dollars are at stake in actions such as those against tobacco companies.

Some are not admitted by judges. Others can lead to massive damages, and huge financial windfalls, if not to everyone who signs up to the suit, at least to the law firms that bring them. The lucrative practice has also led to "venue shopping" where lawyers seek out jurisdictions most sympathetic to such actions.